A documentary filmmaker is never better than his subjects. Sometimes he’s worse. When D.A. Pennebaker had great subjects he made great films. I’m not sure about the rest. Those great subjects happened to be Bob Dylan in the mid-60’s and the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.
To be fair, the only other film of Pennebaker’s I’ve seen is 1993’s The War Room, about Bill Clinton’s successful campaign for the presidency the year before. The skill was there, and the subject was, too. But Pennebaker missed it. He treated the campaign the way the campaign wanted to be treated and since it was obvious, even a year later, that the campaign was made up of craven phonies, beginning at the top, it’s an empty exercise. A great artist would have sensed the opportunity to expose all that, and done so at any cost.
So let’s not call D.A. Pennebaker a great artist.
But he was an enormously skilled craftsman and that skill won him the opportunity to capture two signature events in the decade that marked the American Experiments greatest opportunities for both success and failure. That the latter has swamped the former in the decades since was not the fault of Pennebaker or his subjects. To judge how fortunate we are to have had him at the helm of Don’t Look Back and Monterey Pop, you don’t need to look any further than Martin Scorcese’s The Last Waltz, where what might have been an electric event was turned sodden by Scorcese’s choice of distancing the audience from the performers.
Maybe you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. But you need somebody with a sense of the moment to capture the moment.
D.A. Pennebaker sensed the moment that mattered. After that, he was blown away by the wind.
Then again, so was Bob Dylan. What you can sense, in both Don’t Look Back and the incendiary performances etched on the national memory by the soon-dead Janis, Jimi, Keith and Otis across the long weekend at Monterey, is that no one was going to get out intact, even in the unlikely event they got out alive. You can still feel it whenever and whatever those films play.
Thank Donn Alan Pennebaker for that. Left in anyone else’s hands, a lot that we can see and feel and hear from the decade we’ll still have to understand if we’re ever going to get out of this alive ourselves, might be left to our imaginations. Which could never match this:
[NOTE: This is the second in my series of Track-By-Track appreciations of my twenty favorite vocal albums of the twentieth century.]
Howlin’ Wolf (born Chester Arthur Burnett) was the roughest of the post-war blues singers, the one closest in sound and spirit to prewar bluesmen like Texas’s Blind Willie Johnson and especially Wolf’s mentor the Delta’s own Charley Patton.
If he sounds slightly more accessible to modern ears, it’s likely due to better recording circumstances that improved on the primitive technology of the 1920s. Like all blues singers worth their salt, he wanted to be successful, to sell records, to escape plantation life. Unlike most–especially those who were incapable of the compromises that open most doors in the record business, the radio world, Las Vegas (whether someone, even the Wolf, is unwilling to make such compromises is another, perhaps unknowable story)–he was successful. Perhaps not by pop star standards, but he was able to make a living doing what he wanted to do.
For me, finding the Wolf among the blues singers was like finding Louis Armstrong or Elvis or Al Green or Patty Loveless elsewhere.
Aha, I thought. This is the one.
Where I found him was here, on the second collection of his 50s/early 60s singles put out by Chess records.
I was led to The Rockin’ Chair Album by the conventional wisdom which held that it represented him at his peak.
For once, the conventional wisdom was not just blowing smoke up my skirt.
“Shake for Me”–A lot of singers have expressed something along the lines of “shake it for me.” No one else made it sound like lives depended on it…his and hers.
The Red Rooster”–The Little Red Rooster, on the other hand, has all the time in the world. It’s not exactly as if it was given to him, it’s that he’s taking it anyway. Just try and stop him. The Wolf will laugh at you. Speed up the rooster? The one who’s too lazy to crow for day? Good luck with that.
“You’ll Be Mine”–An unholy noise, the vocal equivalent of a pile-driver. And yet, there’s a delicacy of feeling, a nuance of romanticism that belies the mighty yowl. In this reading, You’ll be mi-i-i-i-i-ine!, is equal parts joy of expectation, fear of loss, and something not quite definable. Terror of what he’ll do if it turns out she won’t be his perhaps? A lifetime of listening hasn’t yielded the answers. I wonder if I’ll be allowed to ponder it in the next life?
“Who’s Been Talkin'”–My favorite Wolf record, the very sound the Rolling Stones spent their early years chasing. The band may have even gotten there, and there would come a time when Mick Jagger had made enough deals with Lucifer to approximate Wolf’s capacity for excising everything inessential from a vocal. What he could never match–few could–was the ease available to a singer who dealt in souls himself. Ask me what My baby bought the ticket, long as my right arm means and I can’t tell you in words. But, in the place where words don’t count, I know exactly what it means.
“Wang Dang Doodle”–Like most of the songs on this album, this was written by Willie Dixon. Unlike most of Willie Dixon’s songs, here and elsewhere, this one is channeling “Young Goodman Brown.” Chester Burnett does Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Hawthorne descended from the Salem Witch Trial judge who never repented. Ah yes, it all makes sense now, this America!
“Little Baby”–Wolf turns ghost or is it stalker? He promises to follow the girl to church or jail. He swears he won’t let anything keep him from holding the money she wins at wages or playing the ponies. You go, and I’ll come with you, little baby. So much for the light-hearted side.
“Spoonful”–Now you flip the record over and it gets deep. Deep enough to make the wicked guitar–wicked even for a Wolf record, maybe the very wickedest–take second place.
“Going Down Slow”–This is the one where he sings about having things kings and queens ain’t never had. Anybody else would be bragging, including the richest rock stars, especially the ones who settled for knighthoods. Silly buggers. They ain’t the Wolf. He ain’t bragging. Just telling it like it is.
“Down in the Bottom”–This is the one where he sings If you see me runnin’ you know my life’s at stake. What’s remarkable about the way he sings it–what turns it inside out and lands it on its head, and yours–is it sounds almost matter of fact. And it’s the “almost” that puts the smell of fear and danger in the air. Comic fear, sure. Comic danger. But the kind that whispers: Next time, you won’t be so lucky!
“Back Door Man”–The men don’t know, but the little girls understand. Anything else you need to know?
“Howlin’ for My Baby”–This is the one where he takes a couple of minutes off to provide a prototype for a side of Otis Redding that never quite came out of Otis himself. If it had, he would have wasted Janis, Jimi, and the Who at Monterey. For the Wolf? A day at the office. Hey ya’ll, I think I just invented the future again. Make sure Mr. Chess gets my check now.
“Tell Me”–Trouble shows up at Wolf’s door….to tell him his baby is gone. He promises to forget in a voice that says he won’t. Oh, goodbye. Goodbye baby got to go. Trouble keeps knocking all the way through the fade. It knocks still. Wolf promises it will knock forever, whether he gets paid or not.
Next up: Bobby “Blue” Bland Two Steps From the Blues. (My complete review from 2012: “By which he means “not even two inches.” Should be fun!)
At the same time drug use rose dramatically among young urban Vietnamese. Some began smoking marijuana, and a few began experimenting with cocaine. At night in the heart of Saigon, by the hundreds and thousands, young Vietnamese, mostly from the middle class and many of them students, flocked to their own yin rituals of communitas, antistructure, and surcease from the conflicting social pressures generated by a society subjected to twenty-five years of war and sudden, massive, and unchanneled sociocultural change. With the photic-driving of flashing colored lights, the sonic-driving of highly amplified electronic keyboards and electric guitars, in darkened rooms thick with cigarette smoke laced with marijuana fumes, the alienated and disoriented youth of Saigon tried to boogie their way into hyperventilation to induce an altered state of consciousness. In physiological,psychological, and sociological terms, the phenomenon was strikingly similar to what their structurally oppressed and psychologically disturbed great-aunts and -uncles had done for centuries as they performed their shamanistic rites to the accompaniment of flickering candles, pungent incense, and throbbing Taoist drumrolls. The same physiological transformation was being sought by people who had learned from prestigious foreign exemplars of an altered state of consciousness that could free them, at least temporarily, from the particular pressures that the yang structures of their society in their time inflicted upon them.
The Dark Maiden of the Ninth Heaven was superseded by Janis Joplin.
(Neil L. Jamieson, Understanding Vietnam, 1993)
I’d cut off my left hand if anyone caught me writing the bloodless, academic jargon of that long paragraph.
I’d give my left arm to have written that last line, which is worth remembering as, after eighteen hard years of rockin’ and rollin’, we begin negotiations to hand the newly minted chaos of Afghanistan back to the Taliban.
First chaos. Then tyranny.
And it does not pay to forget that the line between cherished liberty and tyranny-breeding chaos is exceeding thin. . .
One quiet thing I wanted to do last week on vacation was stop off at the Ridgecrest Baptist Conference Center where I worked in the summer of 1979 and where, in the midst of an otherwise lovely experience, I made the worst decision of my life and thus acquired my most painful memory.
It doesn’t matter what the memory was. I wrote about it here, but it’s sort of incidental because this trip down Memory Lane is about the distance between memory, the present and the physical world that ties them together. The specifics matter to me, but I don’t want to get tangled up in them because I suspect everybody had their own set of specifics that could reach out and grab them at a given moment–I hope on that basis you’ll be able to relate.
You’d think if any place hadn’t changed much it would be a Conference Center run by the Southern Baptist Convention. Having not been near the place since the summer of 1982 (when I visited with my Dad for an actual conference week), any change was bound to deliver a bit of a shock.
Since, specifics or no, I was there to expiate the biggest mistake of my life, any change was bound to depress me, to make the mistake seem even larger and more irredeemable.
And I did expect those changes and those feelings.
What I didn’t expect was for the changes themselves to be so specific–to put new arrows in me because the only places that had been buried (as opposed to altered) by the expected changes were the places I wanted to see again.
The boys’ dorm is gone, under concrete now. The girls’ dorm is changed beyond recognition. I couldn’t even figure out where to park and the guest spaces were far too distant for me to walk (age and disease have sapped my legs).
So much for that side of the interstate, though I did make it into the building where reception and the check-in desk still remain, where they were nice enough to give me a map so I could find the place I really wanted to see, which was the softball field.
The only place I’ve ever written about what happened at the softball field was in one of my unpublished novels. Don’t worry, I won’t burden you with that scene. The important thing last week was that I wanted to see a place where I sat on a hillside.
The softball field is still there, more or less. It doesn’t look well-maintained but that could be because its the off-season.
The hillside is still there, just as I remembered, slanting steeply toward Interstate 40, which still divides the Boys Camp side from the Conference Center and Girls Camp side. The bridge you walk across to get from one side to the other remains.
It would have been great–and cathartic I think–to march half-way up that hillside (for that, my aching legs would have made the effort) and sit and think and remember a while.
Unfortunately forty years is a long time. Long enough for the hillside to have become covered with fifty-foot pines.
Which meant I did my thinking in my car, gazing across time, space, and the dilapidated softball field, listening, by pure coincidence if you believe in such things, to the very last music you should ever listen to when the memory of the worst mistake of your life is crowding in, namely the third disc of Rhino’s Lorraine Ellison box.
It consists of her singing/whispering demo versions of some of the haunting songs she recorded in the wake of the one song everyone knows her for if they know her at all.
Sitting there in my car, I couldn’t hear the music at all. It was playing. My ears were aware of it, but my mind couldn’t shake the song everyone knows her for, and, a week later, it can’t shake the idea that the idea animating the song everyone knows her for was part of the reason I made the biggest mistake of my life in the Summer of 1979, even though I wouldn’t hear of Lorraine Ellison or any of her songs for another decade.
Time is like that. Fluid.
Real time I mean, not what we keep by clocks and calendars. If it were only that, it would come and go and leave us alone.
If any one emotion ruled me in the Summer of 1979 (and the several years that led up to and away from it, in turn), it was Fear.
If any one song has ever defined Fear, it’s the song Lorraine Ellison is most known for.
Her best-known song has two people in it–call them the Leaver and the Left Behind. My greatest Fear, in the Summer of 1979, was being either one of those people.
I spent the Summer of 1979 having a good time…and failing to deal with my Fear.
I spent an hour last week trying to decide–yet again, as I have, off and on again, for nearly forty years–whether I’d trade every good thing that’s ever happened to me (and there have been quite a few) for the chance to go back and face my Fear, not only for the sake of repairing the damage I did to myself but the damage I now suspect I did to someone else who hardly ever knew I existed.
Heavy, I know. But seeing those pine trees in that one spot where I really wanted to sit again and wonder if it was ever really all that big a deal, made me feel forty years was a thousand…and an eye blink.
I came to no new conclusions. One thing I do know. The song Lorraine Ellison is known for–recorded on the one afternoon where she was the greatest singer in the world, deeper than Aretha, more intense than Janis, a year ahead of either being known for anything worthwhile–is the only record that can make me believe, for three minutes at least, that I might possibly have done the right thing.
[Note: This is oh-by-the-way, but if anyone ever wants to know whether Rock and Roll Hall of Fame spots are sometimes purely political, I recommend listening to Lorraine Ellison, who, even without “Stay With Me,” is ten times the singer Nina Simone or Joan Baez ever were, and ask yourself why exactly they’re in the Hall and, if you brought up Ellison’s name at a Nominating Committee meeting, no one would even know what you were talking about.]
I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You(1967)
Aretha deserved every encomium she’s received, alive or dead.
But I found it curious, in the wake of her recent passing that I didn’t read much that really tried to place her in time–it was as though she was always there, or bound to be there. Her simultaneous arrivals at Atlantic Records, the altar of Artistic Genius, and the apex of Soul were noted but only as signposts along some inevitable road.
There was nothing “inevitable” about it.
When Jerry Wexler took his latest signing down to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in the first weeks of 1967, hoping to catch some of what Percy Sledge had laid down there a year earlier, he had already pronounced that he was going to “let Aretha be Aretha.”
A fine sentiment, but it was no-wise clear, to him or anyone else, what that even meant.
Aretha had been a gospel prodigy, then a semi-successful purveyor of supper club pop, gaining a reputation as a singer’s singer while releasing nine modest sellers at Columbia records in the first half of the sixties.
The record on how committed she was to making it as a pop singer is mixed–my guess is Aretha would have been more than a little satisfied if those records had sold well enough to make her the new Sarah Vaughn.
But there was a world beyond her (or anyone’s) ambition, and the world of 1967 was roiling with social and political cross-currents that left a lot of people wondering if the center would hold.
In the year of there’s something happening hear what it is ain’t exactly clear, and Janis, Jimi and the Who torching (literally and figuratively) the stage at the Monterey Pop festival (Rock and Roll America’s first serious turn toward paganism, coming soon to a theater near you!), not to mention relentless bad (or anyway nervous) news from Viet Nam, the inner city, the college campus, I Never Loved a Man was a strange sound indeed.
When the white boy critics who still make up the vast bulk of the crit-illuminati write and speak of Gospel, they have a habit of setting if off from the world, as though it were some form of exotica, like third-world cuisine or the day they discovered the Kama Sutra.
One more way Black America is both eminently exploitable and not-quite-real.
Dollars-to-doughnuts not one of them is capable of holding the meaning of “gospel” (or Gospel) in his head for more than five seconds.
Adding a few actual black people (or women) to the mix has not altered this dynamic in the least.
They’re all still proudest of their atheism (i.e., their distance from belief).
I Never Loved a Man is, among many other things, the last shout of the gospel-based Civil Rights Movement. (By 1967, the old, non-violent, New Testament coalition was already strained at the seams by the New Militancy. Whether Martin Luther King could have held it together is an open question. Making sure it stayed open long enough to become a faded, not-quite-real, memory was the biggest reason so many people who had means, motive and opportunity wanted him dead.)
That’s appropriate enough. Gospel means the same whether it’s lower or upper case.
It means Christian revelation.
Every day of the week, including Saturday night.
Since it entered History, it’s been the source of every move towards liberation History offers.
Same in 1967 as it ever was.
The preacher’s daughter knew. By 1967, she already had a lifetime of experience, in and out of the church.
“Respect”–Aretha “stole” Otis Redding’s song (his word, not mine) by taking the sound straight back to church and thereby lifting the lyric from the personal to the universal. If you listen deep enough you’ll hear why the Gospel message spread like wildfire through the ancient world from slave’s mouth to mistress’s ear. In the eyes of the new god, every man was suddenly a king, every woman suddenly a queen. Maybe the message had been around before. If so, it had failed to convince. No longer. R-e-s-p-e-c-t. Find out what it means to me in other words. And that’s not even counting the part about not wanting all your money.
“Drown in My Own Tears”–Sunday morning piano backing a confessional vocal devoted to worldly abandonment. You get it reverend.*
“I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”–Sex presented as the thing Jesus most needs to save you from. The question stays in the air for the length of the song: Can He? Can even He? A decade later, singing “Belle,” Al Green answered in the affirmative. Aretha left it open-ended. Neither approach can ever wear out, because it’s an (if not “the”) eternal question.
“Soul Serenade”–Dave Marsh was one of the few critics who later picked up on the value of Aretha’s pop career. Church singing aims for abandonment, pop is built around avoiding that very temptation. This is a perfect blend. It starts quiet–a consummate display of discipline–and builds as if the singer and her audience…er, congregation…are lifted, moment by moment.
“Baby, Baby, Baby”–Is reach out for me boy still directed at the man she loved the way she loved a man before? Either way, she’s the guilty one….but only if loving him is a crime. Believe me, that’s a Pentecostal voice. No surprise she wrote it with her sister.
“Dr. Feelgood (Love is a Serious Business)”–The church piano reasserts itself. There’ s no build. She jumps right in. Sometimes you have to grab ’em right off. Wouldn’t want anybody nodding off in the back pew…let alone the front pew. This is the Sex Sermon folks. Second Sunday of the month! Wake up!
“Good Times”–Perhaps its time to mention that the girl had guts. Taking on–and taking down–Otis Redding might be enough for some people, but not for Aretha Franklin in 1967. She set her sights on Sam Cooke too. And if nobody could ever take down Sam Cooke, she certainly looked him in the eye on the way to higher ground. With an Ode to Saturday Night of course!
“Do Right Woman–Do Right Man”–Great as the vocal is, a surer sign of Aretha’s command of the studio (doubtless another benefit of the Columbia experience) is the overdubbed organ and piano, both played by her. I Never Loved a Man wasn’t only a vocal triumph, after all. She was in the process of proving herself a brilliant keyboardist and arranger as well.
“Save Me”–If there can be such a thing as a hidden gem on an album this popular, epic and influential, this would be it. A gut-bucket lick. A wailing vocal. The simplest arrangement on the record…and it just explodes. And somebody–maybe even the record company–knew albums exist for set ups….And the only song that could close this epic was….
“A Change is Gonna Come” –After the heartfelt intro–he had been a family friend, she didn’t have to pretend–Aretha didn’t add anything to Sam Cooke’s original, either temporally or spiritually. No one could. She sounds like she knows it–this is as reverent of its source as “Respect” was irreverent. But she also sounds like she knows that the moment could add something–that, two years after Cooke’s death, the idea that change was not going to come, had already reasserted itself. To turn that reassertion on its head was, perhaps, to rage against the dying of the light. Else affirmation of the sinner’s doubt. Given all that was at stake, no one who felt the loss, then or now, could blame her for trying too hard.
Aretha Franklin used the I Never Loved a Man sessions to set herself free–to insist that anyone not reaching for Higher Ground will soon be walking on the Devil’s dirt. The brilliance–and the resistance to the tides of History–flowed for a decade before the weight of carrying a burden no one should have to carry alone overwhelmed her. Being Queen proved as lonely as being King. At some point she retreated to the safe harbor of professionalism. There was no long fall and she always retained the capacity to, now and again, lift the heart.
But every reason she ever mattered was born in 1967, at the sessions, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and New York, that produced this album.
Whether she–or any of the tiny number who could ever be called her peers– lived and sang in vain will, alas, be up to us.
10) Leslie Kong The “King” Kong Compilation (The Historic Reggae Recordings 1968-1970) (1981)
Kong was among the most famous reggae producers and label owners and it was his records–by Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff, The Pioneers, Toots and the Maytals–that broke the music internationally. All his big stars except Cliff are represented here and, while the music hardly lacks a political edge, Kong’s artists seemed to prize spiritual concerns above all.
Dekker’s records (especially “The Israelites”) are likely the ones recognizable to general American audiences (Cliff broke really big after Kong’s untimely death, producing his own biggest hits in a style clearly influenced by Kong’s earlier productions for him, fair enough since he was the one who induced Kong to start a recording label in the first place–both Cliff and Desmond Dekker reported undergoing deep spiritual crises after Kong died, which perhaps speaks to the sort of man it took to produce these visionary sides). In 1970, Kong wanted to release a comp of early tracks he had cut on Bob Marley’s Wailers. Bunny Wailer allegedly threatened to put a curse on him if he did so. Kong released the record anyway and died within the year.
That’s one theory on his unfortunate demise. My own involves the C.I.A.
I only had to hear this record once to know it wasn’t God.
9) The Beatles(1962-1966) (1973)
The “Red” album (and the accompanying Blue album, about which more in a minute) is how a lot of us who just missed the sixties got to know the Beatles. Well that and the air, where, like Elvis (and no one else, then or now), they were ever-present.
And, from this distance, this is still the best way to learn (or relearn) just how astonishing they were. Yes, there are dozens of tracks from the period I wouldn’t want to live without that aren’t here….But if you just want the essence, this can hardly be bettered. I bought this a week or two after I skipped my senior prom and took my mom to see I Wanna Hold Your Hand instead. In a life filled with mistakes, that might be the best series of decisions I ever made.
8) The Beatles1967-1970 (1973)
I’ve always been an “early Beatles” devotee…and I’ve always known how silly the distinction is. This does just as fine a job of narrating their fall as the Red album does their rise. Hearing it now (after not having listened to it for a few years while watching more than the usual amount of water flow beneath the bridge) I can hear a lot of brilliance I previously cottoned to only as craft. (“Old Brown Shoe” anyone? “Let It Be?” I could go on.)
I’ve always leaned toward them having broken up at the right time, too–a feeling once locked into place by hearing “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” segue into “Honky Tonk Women” on an oldies station…Ouch!.
But “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” was the only thing I heard this time that didn’t make me wonder if I’d been wrong all along.
I can say all that and still admit I’ve never believed they meant a word of it, or needed to. I just don’t know if it makes me better or worse than those who need to believe otherwise.
7) Blondie (1976)
A stunning debut that, unsurprisingly, went mostly unnoticed at the time because Debbie Harry had dropped in from another planet. The look was futuristic with a pre-civilizational undertow (and who could resist that combo), but the voice was something new under the sun and the not-quite-flat affect was pure cult. No way would a woman who looked like that and wrote such whip-smart lyrics ever fail to become a star. No way would any woman who sounded like that ever be more than a novelty success.
One thing you can hear that might split the difference even now is how she had assembled–or latched onto–a band that could do most anything (never mind whether the vocal is from a Betty Boop contest in a Dada club, why is the guitar break from a spaghetti western?….Forty years later and it’s still confusing.) Of course, we know which way it went. She changed just enough. I’m glad. But I’m glad this exists, too. The world can always use a smile, especially if there will never be any way to know whether the joke’s on you.
6) Brenton Wood18 Best (1991)
Southern born, L.A. raised (and based) soul singer who you probably think just about defines “journeyman.”
I’d give this a close listen before you settle on a conclusion. His two big hits, “Gimme Little Sign” and “The Oogum Boogum Song,” catch him in prime form, but he stretched that form so gently and often that his comp amounts to a mysterious shape all its own.
I wasn’t surprised, reading up on him, to find he was an acolyte of L.A. r&b legend Jesse Belvin–Wood’s style seems an updating of the Belvin ethos. He floats like a butterfly, and, as this goes along, you start wondering just how many places he can land without getting swatted. Pretty soon, you’ve listened to the whole thing with a smile on your face and you know why he was a hero everywhere from East L.A. to the Carolina beaches to Leslie Kong’s island.
5) Neil YoungTonight’s the Night (1975)
Along with 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, my go-to Neil Young.
I seriously hope these are the two bleakest albums the man has recorded. But, being hooked on them, I don’t know if I can relate to him being any happier. (Which, except for “Rockin’ in the Free World”–where he ain’t all that much happier–he isn’t on any of the other stray tracks I love from across his career.)
One thing I admire is that he never made another Death Record. It’s not only cheating if you make more than one, it means you’ve made less than one. Now I hear there’s a live version from 1973, when this was recorded. Some say it’s even bleaker.
I’m thinking hard on whether that makes two…and whether I really want to go there to find out.
4) Elton JohnRock of the Westies (1975)
Along with 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, my go-to Elton John album. I don’ t know if this and Tonight’s the Night are my favorite 1975 albums…but if you told me those were the only two I could keep, from a year Fleetwood Mac and Al Green were going strong, I wouldn’t kick.
Pop gems throughout. And if “Grow Some Funk of Your Own,” isn’t Elton’s finest vocal I don’t know what is. It’s certainly Bernie Taupin’s greatest lyric. I don’t know much, but I know when the gay English dude can dance with the pretty senorita in a border town without having a knife pulled on him and being told to get back home, we’ll all be living in a better place.
3) David Lindley, El Rayo-X (1981)
This is a nice debut album from a west coast sideman who had played with everybody who was anybody in the California Rock scene. The closest his ethos comes to resembling a big name’s is probably Warren Zevon, though it’s crossed with Jackson Browne and a light, but persistent south of the border flavor.
There are twelve tracks and eleven of them go down easy.
I made this my impulse buy of the summer on the recommendation of Robert Christgau. He gave it an A- and scribbled something about the drummer and this being the best live music he’d heard from the famous San Francisco scene of the late sixties.
What is it really? A bunch of jamming musicians’ musicians who opened at Monterrey Pop and had the same chance to wow the world that was seized upon by Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Otis Redding. As I was listening to it (a not unpleasant experience mind you–they always played better than they sang, even in the studio–but not making me wish I did drugs so I could relate either), I remembered that Christgau once gave B+ grades to Tanya Tucker’s Greatest Hits, Chirpin’ and Beauty and the Beat.
I know taste is subjective, but the onset of senility can’t be discounted.
1) Smokey RobinsonSmokin’ (1978)
CD version of Smokey’s live album from ’78. Long difficult to find on vinyl so this is the first time I’ve heard it.
It’s a wonderful album, filled with great moments from both the singer and his crack touring band. Needless to say, they don’t lack for material. I especially love the interaction with a black audience neither he nor they had reason to suspect would become permanently mixed again when the following year’s “Cruisin'” put his solo career back in the cultural space he had earned as frontman for the Miracles. And Smokey was as great on stage as he was in the studio–just one more way he was the complete poet Bob Dylan surely meant when either his mind or his mouth called him America’s greatest living example of same.
And nothing–not even “Mickey’s Monkey”–can match the first moment, when he steps to the mike in front of what he must have assumed would always be Black America and only Black America to open the show with “The Tracks of My Tears” and invests it with such shattering intensity it feels like he’s trying to save the American Experiment single-handed–and as if he just might be the only man who can.
If you lived through 1978, it might take you the rest of the day to shake that off.
I’m chalking up the album’s obscurity to the same forces that killed Leslie Kong.
10) The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
After decades, this finally opened up for me in the last six months, thanks to the dual mono/stereo format in which the band’s albums now seem to be routinely released. Usually, I don’t have any trouble deciding which I prefer (especially with the Beatles–monomonomono!), but this one I go back and forth on. I wouldn’t say I’ve been listening obsessively, like I’m in the freshman dorm circa 1967, but I’ve finally been forced to pay attention to the stretch between “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Day in the Life.” That’s what life is for, I suppose. To live, to learn and to find oneself wondering if hearing the same thing in both ears is better than hearing different things in different ears. By Jove, I think they’ve finally got me!
9) The RascalsAnthology: 1965-1972 (1992)
This has always been more my speed. No shame there. The Rascals’ best music is as essential as anything in life and they never stopped being great–not something one can say for many bands who made the journey from 1965 to 1972 and actually tried to keep up. Even as a big fan, I still remember being shocked at how much force this had when I first heard so much gathered in one place.
I’m not shocked anymore–but it still hits hard, all of it. Their great theme was Love, in all its variants–good, bad, personal, political, lost, found. A classic case of someone being so completely of their time they transcend it. and remind all who attend them now of how much was lost when their time passed.
6-8) WarAll Day Music, The World is a Ghetto, Deliver the Word (1971, 1972, 1973)
No one has ever produced a greater trifecta. That these three albums, among the most radical ever made, went gold or platinum (The World is a Ghetto was the best-selling album of 1973) is still astonishing, as is the fact that singles as potent as “Slippin’ Into Darkness” and “The World is a Ghetto” were even more powerful as isolated extended album cuts–and mind-bending in the context of their respective LPs. From this distance, there really isn’t any way to process the existence of such music, let alone the idea/reality that it once topped the charts. No music has ever been quite so successful in reaching from the last dead end street all the way to the sky–and you can’t feel the full effect unless you listen to all three at once. I promise…
5) Cyndi LauperShe’s So Unusual (1983)
As what I’m starting to hear as the most radical album ever released, this makes a nice followup to War at their peak. Astounding on so many levels, my favorite being that Lauper was the only singer who, as a singer, had a truly Punk ethos–she held nothing back, took more vocal risks than anyone since the fifties, more emotional risks than anyone since Janis Joplin, and meant to top the charts with it…which, oh by the way, she did.
Not the *&%$in’ British charts either.
More coming…eventually…I promise.
4) The Four TopsAnthology: 50th Anniversary (2004)
The first disc is devoted to the dark side of love and need. The titles tell most of the story: “Baby I Need Your Lovin’,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” “7-Rooms of Gloom,” “Ask the Lonely,” “You Keep Running Away.”
But even when the words carry a hint of optimism–“Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” “Something About You,” even “I Can’t Help Myself”–Levi Stubbs’ voice and Holland/Dozier/Holland’s arrangements fill in the blanks. This man will never know happiness!
Second disc is good solid post-sixties soul music that starts near-great (like maybe he could be happy) and ends fair-to-middlin’-with-little-distinction (sort of sub-Luther Vandross), though “Catfish” is a hidden gem….an update of the Coasters, with whom the pre-fame Tops had competed in the fifties and as far from their persona as it was possible to get.
3) The StylisticsThe Stylistics (1971)
Speaking of post -sxties soul music, this is coming from the inspired angle. One of the great debut albums, from the era when Thom Bell could do no wrong, and it never quits. Odd, though, that the absolute killer was the only song Bell and Linda Creed didn’t write–and just possibly his greatest production. If there could be such a thing.
Also, just possibly Russell Thompkins Jr.’s greatest ever vocal.
Neneh didn’t turn out to be a genius and that was pretty apparent listening to Raw Like Sushi even then. She was, however, a talented hip-hopper, speaking from a street tough stance that the mainstream hadn’t seen much of at the time. These days, even in the wake of Mary J. Blige and a few others who could claim genius status, this still sounds fresh…and even Mary J. has never laid “Buffalo Stance” in the shade. Because nobody has and nobody could.
1) Al GreenGreen is Blues (1969)
Al Green was always a genius. It was only with his next album (his third) that the world started to take notice, but all the elements were in place here: the Hi rhythm section, Willie Mitchell’s sure touch in the production booth, the startling taste in covers (here jumping from “Get Back” to “Summertime” at the close–Beatles to Gershwin in a bandbox Memphis studio with a bunch of little-knowns and unknowns in the late sixties, with psychedelia blooming all around. Nobody had done anything like that since, well that guy who walked into a bandbox Memphis studio in the mid-fifties. Of whom, as I’ve noted before, Green was the greatest descendant….and, as it turned out, Rock and Roll America’s last great hope.
**The Turtles turned down “Eve of Destruction” because they thought it would be a huge, career-suffocating hit and turn them into one-hit wonders. Mary Weiss has stated that she felt the same about “Leader of the Pack” and was reluctant to record it for that reason. They both made the right choice. If Neneh felt the same about “Buffalo Stance,” she did too. Comes to that, so did Barry McGuire, who took “Eve of Destruction” to number one as an Old Testament warning LBJ and Robert McNamara failed to heed at their–and our–extreme peril.
(NOTE: I’ve been working on this one for a while and now present it as, I believe, the most in-depth appreciation of Brenda Lee that exists anywhere. If, by chance, that’s true, she deserves for somebody to beat it every day from now on.)
First my story….
Back in the days when I measured my life in large part by the discovery of voices, I used to hit the good local record store every Friday after work the way other people hit bars, restaurants or movie theaters. There was a process, almost sacred. It differed from ritual only in that it involved making decisions. Lots of decisions. I like all kinds of music. Back in the days of good record stores in medium-sized towns, there were literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of records (later CDs) I wanted to hear.
I emphasize the word “hear” because, for me, that was always the point: the actual listening experience. I didn’t care about “collecting,” never cared whether a record or disc had any qualities beyond what I was actually going to hear when I put it on the appropriate playing device. I’m not saying I was never influenced by any other factor (I love album covers for all kinds of reasons…and I’m hardly averse to a bargain), but when the last measure was being counted, on a Friday night or any other time, where I put my twenty or thirty or, at a rare extreme, fifty bucks was completely controlled by what I wanted to hear when I got home that night. If that makes me sound like a junkie, well, I can see where there’s a certain obsessional affinity. (It’s one reason I never took drugs. I recognized my vulnerabilities.)
One day in the early nineties, I came home with this:
I didn’t think it was any big deal. I just thought it was time. I knew who Brenda Lee was, and by that I mean I was certain I knew who Brenda Lee was. I was born in 1960, in the south. There was no way to avoid knowing who Brenda Lee was in that time and place, and, really, no way to avoid being certain that you knew.
Okay, I didn’t really know too many of her songs. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” was a holiday perennial. “I’m Sorry” and “Sweet Nothin’s” showed up on an oldies’ station once in a while. I even had one of her greatest hits albums on vinyl. This one as it happened:
I hadn’t bought it, just acquired it in one of those stacks of records that record junkies acquire here and there (people are forever giving away their old albums, even to this day…the only ones you never end up with are the ones you were certain you would that invariably contain that one cherished item you can never find anywhere else…oh, wait, I think I may have just gotten this confused with life).
I had listened to it. Nothing went on the shelf without getting a spin. For whatever reason it hadn’t made an impression. You listen to enough records and some of them get by you. That one got by me, maybe because I was certain I knew Brenda Lee so I knew I only had to listen with half an ear.
I liked her, of course. Who didn’t? She was big. She had a lot of hits in an era when that was hard to do without being good (though, of course, it wasn’t impossible…I’ll avoid naming names).
So I knew all that when I brought that 2-CD package home on a Friday night around 1994 or so. I also knew–was certain I knew–where Brenda Lee fit. She was one of those good singers from the fifties/early sixties. One of those singers like Gene Pitney or Brook Benton or Bobby Darin who made really good records and earned a certain level of respect that went so far and no further.
By which I mean I knew–was certain–that she wasn’t important. Not truly important. Not to people like me. She was too professional. Too inside the lines. Too cautious. Maybe even too slick.
Now don’t get this wrong. I expected to enjoy the Anthology, was very much looking forward to hearing it. I even thought–took it for granted really–that I would be moved by a previously unheard track or two, that there would be a few new favorites to absorb into my personal pantheon. There almost always were and just because I had Brenda Lee pegged, didn’t mean I didn’t respect her. I mean, it was the nineties. Rock and roll was dead as a door nail (just like it had first been pronounced in the days when Brenda was having her first hits with her being, by some people’s lights, exhibit A…except this time it was real, because, among other things, it was happening to me, and, of course, I turned out to have the kind of cursed luck that means when it happened to me it really, really happened!), and even if it somehow wasn’t, I still knew not to take a sixties-era hit maker for granted because the stuff they had made sound so easy had long since proved to be anything but. Hey, why do you think those Friday night decisions in the record store were so hard? How do you think I had gotten twenty years into my record buying life without having a decent Brenda Lee collection on my ever-burgeoning shelves? A treasury of riches, that’s how. Always a little more gold to mine. Just keep digging.
So the digging had finally gotten around to her. Specifically to a 2-CD set (minus box…they knocked five dollars off the price…that’s all it took!) entitled Brenda Lee Anthology: 1956-1980–surely the only Brenda I would ever need.
I bought other stuff, too. I don’t remember specifically what, but there were probably two or three other cheap CDs. The Anthology, though, was definitely the big purchase of the week, I do remember that. I remember that because it was my habit to save the big purchase for last. So the way it worked, I got myself something to eat, I puttered around, I watched part of the baseball or basketball game (whatever season it was).
I listened to the other CDs.
Then, when midnight drew near, I threw on the first CD of the Brenda Lee set.
My thinking was I could listen to a few tracks while I was getting ready for my shower (probably something similar to what I had done with that LP that got by me back when). Then, if it sounded like I might miss something important, I could pause it while I was in the shower and, if it didn’t, I could turn it up a little and keep it playing, pretty sure I would hear enough of what was going on over the stinging needles to do a playback if needed. I mean, it was the big purchase of the week but I knew Brenda Lee, had grown up with her being sort of around, heard her all my life.
I was pretty sure I could sneak in a shower.
So I listened to this while I was getting the towels out, changing into my robe…
And it was fine. Not Hank Williams (hell, she was eleven) but catchy. Then there was a another catchy one and the one after that was this one…
And I thought, “Gee, this is….something…”
Enough of something to get me to walk into where the stereo was and cinch my robe and take a seat.
Just for a song or two, you know.
Then the song or two went by and this came on…
And I thought…”What is this?” By which my subconscious meant something like “What’s happening here?”
An hour-and-a-half later, I was still sitting there in my robe, listening to this…
“What just happened?”
Well, by then the question was purely rhetorical. I knew what had just happened. What had just happened was I had been taken on a great journey through American music–rock and roll, country, rockabillly, R&B, the Nashville Sound, teen-pop, Tin Pan Alley–by one of its greatest singers.
And I wasn’t entirely happy about it.
Oh, I was happy about the music. Ecstatic in fact. Lifted in the way that only the discovery (or in this case, comprehension) of a great new voice could lift somebody who spent as much of his life searching for voices as I did.
But the ecstasy was cut, seriously, by anger.
I was angry at the people who had lied to me, who had managed to render somebody I had known all my life literally invisible, to somehow shove her out of reach, past what I had previously considered my very keen hearing.
And it was then–right then–that I began developing my Unified Theory of Rock Criticism as a specific conspiracy designed to drop Brenda Lee down the memory hole.
It took me about ten minutes to develop that theory. I’m still working out how I feel about it. Which is maybe why I put Brenda Lee’s picture at the top of my blog the day it started and waited six years to write about her.
I’m still working through my issues.
But this is a celebration of Brenda Lee, so I’m not planning to work through them here. What I’m planning to do here is place Brenda Lee in rock and roll history the way I hear it.
And the best way to do that is to leave my story alone and tell hers…
First her life, then her art.
Her life went more or less like this….
She was born in 1944. Her family was literally dirt poor, moving constantly in and around the dirt hills of northeast Georgia. She was singing for candy in local stores at three, on what passed for the local stages at five, on local radio not long after. When her father died in 1953, she instantly became the family’s principal breadwinner, a journey that took her to radio stations in Ohio, Kentucky and, eventually, a local show where, upon hearing the voice John Lennon would later allegedly pronounce “the greatest rock and roll voice of them all,” Red Foley got “cold chills,” watched her get three encores, and signed her up for the Ozark Mountain Jubilee.
Soon she was commuting from north Georgia to southern Missouri every weekend, leaving Friday afternoon for a fifteen-hour ride with whoever was going, telling jokes to keep the drivers awake, performing live Saturday night in settings like this one….
Then returning on Sunday, arriving home Monday in the wee hours, just in time for school
More Mondays than not, her head hit the desk before lunch time. Her teachers let her sleep.
The hard-won professionalism that would, in part, keep several generations of critics, programmed to prize what they deemed “spontaneity” as the only true form of “authenticity,” from understanding her, paid off with a Nashville contract (Decca/MCA) in 1955.
Then the real work began. How to sell an eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen-year-old girl who looked half her age to either a hard-bitten country audience that had never accepted anyone her age before, or a rock and roll audience that Nashville was scared to death of–and, despite a few hits for Frankie Lymon and Arlene Smith’s Chantels, hadn’t made anybody that young a major star either. One hit wonders of the type that proliferated throughout rock’s early dawn were virtually unheard of in country at any age. In Nashville, they were looking to build careers.
But, in order to build a career, you had to have a hit to build it on. Somewhere, some time. You can stand around and look cute. You can even go to Vegas…
You can carry your family on your back, touring from town to town. You can sign with a one artist manager (just like Elvis!) who makes you the first truly international rock and roll touring star while Nashville’s A Team and crackest of crack producers (Owen Bradley), is still trying to figure out where you fit. You can smart talk the ace session men (“well goo-goo to you, too” she said, on the guar-an-teed last occasion when anybody talked down to her) and get everybody who knows you personally to love you enough that you’ll be something like the biggest star nobody ever said a bad word about…if you can only find a hit that makes you a star to begin with. Something more than a touring sensation. Something more than a girl the French make up stories about (“she’s really a thirty-year-old midget!”…that made more sense than the truth of that voice coming from a four-foot-nothing thirteen-year-old).
It must have been the longest four years anyone ever lived while, in some senses, having it so good. She was everybody’s baby. She was making a living. She was even already “Little Miss Dynamite” as great an earned nickname as anybody ever had or ever will.
She just wasn’t a hit-maker.
It must have been extraordinarily frustrating–to hear dozens (or hundreds) who weren’t as good as you have hits, even strings of hits, in and out of Nashville. Even for someone who had once moved eight times in nine years, seen her daddy die of old age in his forties (like so many then), carried her family on her tiny back for nearly a decade at the ripe old age of fifteen without achieving anything like the Shirley Temple/Judy Garland level of promised success that must have been whispered in her ear by managers, talent scouts, record producers, know-it-alls, know-nothings, from the time she was big enough to stand on the box that let her reach the microphone.
The only picture I could find of Brenda with Patsy Cline
Frustrating all the more because she must have known she was already so much more than a pro. Being a pro was important, sure, but it only gets anyone so far. If you are being mistaken for a female midget, it may not get you as far as it does some others. And, without a hit, the greatest mentors and finest friends can’t keep you afloat forever.
Frustrating because, on top of everything else, you’ve managed to get better and better, to build, step by painful step, something authentically new in American music, the blend of Hank Williams, Mahalia Jackson and Judy Garland you, and you alone, aimed for. Hard to do all that, and still get taken for a little girl.
Harder still if even this can’t bring you a hit (it didn’t get big until after she did)…
..and the specific style you’ve been groomed for, rockabilly, is beginning to fade. One day, you look around and Elvis is in the army, Jerry Lee’s in trouble for cousin-marryin’ (surprise, surprise), Buddy Holly just went down in a plane crash. Roy Orbison is thinking about how to get away from Sam Phillips. Charlie Rich is doing the same. And you?
…Then the Art
Well, you’ve been on a major label for nearly four years without cracking the Hot 100.
And, oh by the way, the word has gone out.
If you do, by chance, get a pop hit, Nashville won’t let any country stations play it. It’s not 1956 anymore. The world has moved on. They had shut out the Louisiana Hayride. They had shut out Elvis and the Everly Brothers. They had kept the colored people out.
Actually, that last part was sort of okay. She did behave. Maybe she didn’t quite always behave just exactly like the book said (and wouldn’t you like to get a peek at that book, the one you know is still somewhere in Nashville, locked away, consulted only on high holy occasions, its location and provenance known only to the few?) when she opened her mouth to sing, but, hey, that’s a chance you sometimes have to take. Does it matter really, where the records get sold? The profits come back to the same office don’t they, whether the next release takes off in Pittsburgh or Winnemucca….or Tokyo?
It could have gone on a while longer, the speculation about whether she would finally make it. Maybe not much longer. Certainly not forever. Even Nashville loses patience at some point. They lost patience with plenty of people, before and since, who had fewer shots at making it than Brenda did. Some of them were even big talents.
But maybe not quite as big a talent as she was. It wasn’t her professionalism or her toughness or her beyond-her-years ladylike demeanor that won her all that patience–seven singles in three years that combined for exactly one week on the country charts and zero weeks in the Top 40. It was her voice. Her voice and, I suspect, a general sense that the voice wasn’t the problem, that it couldn’t really miss if it was given the right setting.
What that setting was, nobody knew. We shouldn’t forget that. We shouldn’t forget what we have forgotten in the nearly six decades since, the decades that have brought us a long string of what I like to call Brenda’s Children, a line that, sticking only to white women and the most obvious, runs directly from Jackie DeShannon to Lulu to Tanya Tucker to Stevie Nicks to Sheryl Crow to Pink and whoever comes next, casting a shadow the meanwhile on every single woman who has sung any sort of rock, country or southern inflected R&B.
We shouldn’t forget that Brenda Mae Tarpley made herself up out of Hank Williams and Mahalia Jackson and Judy Garland and that nobody before her sounded like her. We shouldn’t forget that, having heard that voice in literally hundreds of different throats since, we can take its place in the American soundscape for granted only because it was one of those voices that, when it did appear, made everybody go, “Well, of course,” and believe they must have heard it all their lives because it’s that kind of voice. I mean, a sound like that, what would keep it from existing in our national consciousness before, say, 1959?
Lots of things, actually. Musical things, cultural things, socio-political things. All that plus the absence, until the right moment, of an imagination sufficient to the task of calling the future into being.
If you are thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, well-behaved, mistaken for a midget, a freak of “nature,” not interested in songwriting, most of all a girl-l-l-l-l, then you are not likely to be given credit for all that. Not even if, through all the sweat, all the grind, all the learning, you find your way, at last, to this…
…and make it sound as natural as breathing.
After that, the floodgates.
For one hot minute, she was alone. Then the minute passed–lightning quick, as rock and roll time demanded back then–and her imitators were everywhere. There was a reason I was ready for her all those years later in my apartment, stuck in my chair as if I were paralyzed, as if I had lost every sense but my hearing. I was ready because “Oh Me, Oh My” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart’ and “Landslide” and “Delta Dawn” and a hundred others had made me ready, ready to say “Oh, that’s where all that came from,” ready to go searching for where she had come from, a search that still goes on, because, if she came from anywhere, (even Edith Piaf, as some insist), it’s not likely she came from there anywhere near as directly as all those others came from her.
So the stardom everybody had predicted came at last.
And it came because she had put the essential rasp in the future of white women singing rock and roll.
And because she was a pro’s pro.
Well, she still had a life to live.
Like so much else, she didn’t live it the way anybody expected.
Chaperoned on dates until she was eighteen, she eloped with the first man she dated alone, (eloped so that her mother and her manager wouldn’t have a chance to talk her out of it). She had two kids. She left the road for a bit to raise them. She saw the British Invasion coming before anyone else. (But boys, where do you get these songs? she asked two lads whose band was opening for her on a German tour. John Lennon and Paul McCartney looked at each other and said, Well. We wrote them….. Oh my, she said. A lot of people would later claim they said something similar, but she was the only one who went home and told her record company they would be fools if they didn’t sign that band at once. It didn’t matter what kind of performers they were, the songs would be worth a fortune. The record company scoffed at her. I’m certain she was too much of a lady to ever remind them, after what she knew was bound to happen happened.)
What was bound to happen took as much out her career as anyone’s. She would always say she never changed, the world just turned. Right enough.
Because it was all more or less there from the beginning. It was there, not so much because she wasn’t forever polishing her style, but because the quality that marked her off even more than her remarkable timbre was the artist’s consummate empathy.
I’ll share what I’ve lived, her voice would always say.
And I’ll share what you’ve lived.
It was that last that made her a giant. It was why she could exemplify the rock and roll audience more deeply than anyone else, even though she had grown up as far inside Show Biz as Ricky Nelson (the only other major early rock icon who had grown up in Show Biz at all). The efforts her family–and, lest we forget, her culture–made to make sure she kept her feet on the ground, made a perfect fit with her nature. She was the little girl with the big voice and she was Little Miss Dynamite.
She was also every-teen.
She wasn’t chaperoned on dates when she was sixteen because she was selling millions of records. She was chaperoned because, in the world she came from, that was what you did. (It was the last moment when many did, but it was still what you did.)
She sold “Let’s Jump the Broomstick”–marriage as an act of rebellion–because that’s what she imagined others doing. A few years later she eloped.
But it wasn’t a simple matter of wish-fulfillment. Nobody could have sustained a career like hers on that.
She would learn–in the process of becoming the highest charting female act of the 1960s (trailing only Elvis, The Beatles, and, in some counts, Ray Charles)–to summon feelings no one would wish for.
She would learn to do it so well–to imagine herself in our shoes so thoroughly–that some of us would never wish for anyone else to take her place.
She would do that despite living no part of it herself. She would do it despite remaining happily married for life to the first man she ever dated without a chaperone.
And she would do it over and over again–wring every last ache out of the ballads that made her the Queen of Heartbreak:
…all defining (and being defined by) a sensibility that ended up in the same place, no matter which angle she started from…
Then the times changed and she woke up one day to find that her one-act manager had passed away, left her–a massive touring star who was the best selling female act of her era–in possession of her husband, those two kids, twenty thousand dollars and the deed to a split level ranch house. She made her husband-for-life her manager and determined not the repeat the mistake. That led to a fine second career on the country charts which finally welcomed her when she could no longer go pop. Somewhere down the line–some time after I had my epiphany, the honors came. The Halls of Fame (she’s one of four acts who is in both the Rock and Roll and Country Halls as a performer–the others are Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and the Everly Brothers….you may have heard of them) came calling, better late than never. The inevitable embalming in Branson. The late career retrospectives and fond reminiscences.
And the secret tribute from the air, where her voice is still the foundation of a hundred others who may never have heard her or even of her. Now, they swaddle those voices in walls of suit-approved, machine-generated white noise, but, if you strip all that away, it’s still her voice at the core. You might call it the Other voice.
Because the great voices come in two kinds: those that can be readily imitated (even if never quite matched) and those that can’t.
Call it the Brenda Lee/Patsy Cline Paradigm.
Patsy’s influence is almost entirely inspirational because nobody can quite get in her space.
Same for Billie Holiday. Same for Janis Joplin.
Brenda Lee? Well, gee, lots of people sound like her, don’t they? Lots of people get in her space.
Sure they do.
And because of that, we’re prone to assume she just came from the air. That if she hadn’t conjured whatever she conjured, somebody else would have.
That’s how she gets dropped down the memory hole and also why she can never quite remain buried.
The air works like that.
Too many end up owing you too much. As long as anyone, anywhere wants to dig a little deeper–and as long as there’s air to breathe, someone will–it’s always you they’ll find at the root.
Brenda Mae Tarpley may have only grown to four-foot nothing.
The Vietnam War–A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: The Soundtrack (2017)
I haven’t seen Ken Burns’ latest on The Vietnam War (which I notice sustains the implicit arrogance of so many of his other titles–The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, etc.–the persistent implication that he has rendered the last word on each subject in turn, and one need look no further).
But the two-disc soundtrack (thirty-seven tracks in all) looked promising, maybe because I didn’t read too carefully past the head-spinning, conceptually heart-stopping triple-header near the top of the first disc: “It’s My Life,” “Eve of Destruction,” “Turn, Turn, Turn.”
Now that I’ve had the soundtrack experience, I can make the following observations.
First: It’s never a good sign when “flimmakers” insist on putting their names in the title of their film. It’s really not a good sign when they insist on putting their names on the title of the soundtrack.
Second: The cover’s as pedestrian, and perversely revealing, as the title. Wonder how the big shots at PBS would have reacted if Burns and company had insisted on an image that reversed the positions of the American fighting man and the Vietnamese peasant above? Wonder how they would have reacted if they had reversed the positions and then replaced the image of the Vietnamese peasant with an image of a North Vietnamese fighting man? Wouldn’t that have been a least a little unsettling?
Third: And shouldn’t we want a thirty-seven track soundtrack of The Vietnam War to be at least a little unsettling?
I’m not saying nothing good happens. That triple-header is all it promised to be, even coming out of a pedestrian country number (Johnny Wright’s Country #1, “Hello, Vietnam,” which, along with Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” is supposed the represent the Pro-War, or at least Pro-American Fighting Man position, which, if you’re gonna go there, why not pick a blood-and-guts number like “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” which is also a better record). Ray Charles’ take on “America the Beautiful” is a great setup for “What’s Going On.” And having Janis Joplin bleed out of Bob Dylan’s folk-phase version of his own “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” provides one of those recontextualizing jolts that make such comps worth our attention in the first place.
But, my God, what a missed opportunity.
Not having seen it, I can’t speak for the way the music is used in the series (the more accurate description for the “film” in question), but there were a few good ways to go with the soundtrack and whoever did the choosing, chose “none of the above.”
One good way, would have been just a straight run of the “iconic music of the Vietnam era” promised by the cover.
That would have meant including “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and both the Dylan and Hendrix versions of “All Along the Watchtower.” That would have meant more than one Creedence number (and if there was only one, it should have been “Fortunate Son” or “Run Through the Jungle” not “Bad Moon Rising,” great and appropo as it is). That would have meant the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” over the Temptations’ relatively pedestrian “Psychedelic Shack,” and their “We Can Be Together” over the Beatles’ “Let It Be” as an album closer, with the Fabs represented instead by “Hey Jude,” or “Revolution” or something from The White Album. That would have meant the Band’s “The Weight.” That would have meant including Edwin Starr’s “War” and the Chambers’ Brothers “Time Has Come Today” and the Supremes’ “Reflections.” That would have meant a track or two from the Doors and adding the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” to their “Gimme Shelter.” That would have meant the Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.” That would have meant Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “500 Miles” as a side-opener (instead of Dylan’s blustering and not nearly as convincing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”)
Well, none of that happened.
Which would be fine if, instead, those choosing had come up with inspired numbers from the Secret Sixties and used this high-profile opportunity to introduce new audiences to not-so-well-known numbers which caught–and still catch–the tenor of the times as well as anything even if they were never big hits. Think the Mamas and the Papas of “Straight Shooter” (or, as I never fail to mention “Safe in my Garden”). Think the Peter, Paul and Mary of “Too Much of Nothing.” (Dylan, incidentally, is the only artist who gets three cuts here. There should be less of Dylan the singer and more of Dylan the writer. Standing this close to Janis Joplin or Eric Burdon, forget the Howlin’ Wolf or Wilson Pickett or “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” he does not come off well absent his rock and roll voice.)
Anyway back to thinking: Think the Supremes of “Forever Came Today.”Think the Shangri-Las of “Never Again” or “I’ll Never Learn.” Think the Fairport Convention of “Nottamun Town” or “Meet on the Ledge” or even “I’ll Keep it With Mine” instead of “The Lord is in This Place” (fine and haunting, but too much of a mood piece to stand between “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “For What It’s Worth” without being diminished and diminishing them in turn, something a well made comp should never do).
And still thinking: Think the Byrds of “Goin’ Back” or “Draft Morning,” or even “The Ballad of Easy Rider.” Think the Waylon Jennings of “Six White Horses.” Think the Nancy Sinatra of “Home.”
Think all the beach soul numbers that carried a hint of warning behind even the most positive dance-happy messages (Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs on “May I” or the Tams on “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy”–think what that must have felt like if you heard it in Saigon while you were waiting for the next chopper out.
One could go on. One could on so far as to have used these numbers to fill an entire soundtrack by themselves.
Or one could have gone yet another, third, direction and used them as stitching between the more obvious anthems and constructed a soundtrack that wouldn’t quit and wouldn’t die.
Of course, for that, you would have needed less taste and more guts.
Nothing Ken Burns or PBS would ever be accused of, I’m sure.
Absent all that, unless you really need Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” in a context where you don’t have to listen to him sing for a whole album without the Weavers, I say give this one a pass.
Me, I always liked Dave Marsh’s idea that if “Leader of the Pack” had come out a year later, it would have been heard as a much better metaphor for the unfolding quagmire from which we have never emerged.
And, for the record, I wouldn’t really have closed with “We Can Be Together.” I’d of let that be penultimate (replacing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and closed with this, from the truly “closing” year of 1972.
I was just reminded (by one of those random accidents that are the Internet’s true reason for being) that Michelle Williams has been signed to play Janis Joplin.
It might not happen. The idea of a Janis biopic has been around forever and this particular one has been bobbing up here and there for nearly a decade (this is the second time Williams’ has her name attached, but this time she seems to have actually been cast after a grueling audition). But it’s farther along than any previous attempt.
If it does come to pass, all I can say is Williams is the one actress most likely to connect with Joplin’s unique ethos (and certainly the only actress who could pull off the Marilyn Monroe/Janis Joplin Daily Double).
And it will mean this…
may very well meet this…
Bear in mind that’s not even in extremis….for either of them.
The mind reels.
Much as I want Michelle Williams to be in every movie that matters, I’m not even sure I want this to happen. The concept is frightening and I’m already certain if it ends up a scintilla less terrifying in reality than it already is in my imagination, I won’t know whether to be gut-punched or relieved.
Either way, I can imagine myself running out of the theater yelling “I can’t bear it” with an English accent.
But one thing’s sure. If it does come to pass, I’ll be there.