10) The Miracles Greatest Hits From the Beginning (1965)
Even after the old three record Anthology from the 70’s and one of the greatest box sets ever from the 90’s, this is still part of every basic record library. Nowhere else can you experience the unadulterated joy and pain of the young Smokey Robinson quite so purely or all at once or so connected to his (and Motown’s) doo wop roots. When you’re listening, it’s impossible to believe that he actually got better.
9) Various Artists Atlantic Jazz: Kansas City (1986)
This was part of an extensive series the Atlantic label issued in the 1980’s to exploit their considerable Jazz catalog. It’s the only one I picked up along the way and this is probably only the second time I’ve listened to it. Put it this way: It has me considering tracking down the whole series.
8) Burning Spear Rocking Time (1974)
This is the album Winston Rodney released just before his monumental Marcus Garvey which, especially in its double-cd tandem Garvey’s Ghost (which Greil Marcus once called surf music with slave ships on the horizon, a description that will never be bettered) is one of the essential albums of all time. My copy’s on the original Studio One label and I can’t say whether the scratchy quality is from a primitive recording or just crappy vinyl. Somehow it adds to the music’s ghostly quality. I’m not sure I’ll ever have the nerve to listen close.
7) Jerry Butler The Best of Jerry Butler (1970)
A talisman of my life. If more people could say the same, the world would be a better place, because from this distance the Iceman sounds like a man trying to heal a world that pointedly and specifically refused the medicine and opted for nihilism instead. Wonder how that’s working out…
6) Jackie Wilson Jackie Sings the Blues (1960)
A recent discovery and a miracle. The only overlap with his various excellent comps is “Doggin’ Around.” I always wondered what a whole album of Jackie in “Doggin’ Around” mode would sound like. Now I know: Epochal.
5) Various Artists Less Than Zero Soundtrack (1987)
A trash metal soundtrack to a desultory movie about a desultory time, broken by occasional nods to nascent hip hop…And elevated to permanent relevance by two startling sides: LL Cool J’s sly, menacing “Going Back to Cali” and the Bangles complete re-imagining of Paul Simon’s “Hazy Shade of Winter” as a hard rock anthem to die for, both of which evoke the hellish landscape of 80’s America far better than the movie did.
4) Various Artists Beserkley Chartbusters Volume I (1975)
The most famous power pop compilation from the most famous power pop label. Not bad but I can never help remembering that Raspberries had already taken this concept as far as it could go so it mostly makes me want to listen to Raspberries.
3) Jefferson Airplane Volunteers (1969)
This has been in heavy rotation on my turntable of late. I can’t imagine why. What with the proof that 1969 never really ended because we never really resolved its contradictions all over the news yet again maybe I keep thinking that if this is never going to provide the answers it will at least lead me back to a clarification of the questions. Not bad for a bunch of Limo Libs. Still the first album I’d play for a youngster who wanted to begin understanding the Sixties.
2) Spirit The Best of Spirit (1973)
They made good albums, but this is still my go-to, maybe just because, in 1979, when I bought it, it was the only thing available in the malls of America. Or maybe just because it’s great on its own. They didn’t really need conceptual LPs. They were a conceptual band and they had that one quality that makes any artist prone to being under-appreciated: There was no one else like them. Get your ass to the animal zoo indeed.
1) Dusty Springfield Golden Hits (1966)
One of these days I’m going to start a category for Perfect Albums or maybe just Perfect Things. This might be Exhibit A. My copy survived the Great Jefferson Arms Apartments Flood of 1981. (Fair enough as the flood was technically started by me–personally I blame whoever reversed the threads on the hot water handle in the bathroom sink, which made it a dangerous proposition to leave for work when the water had been cut off in the middle of shaving. Probably because they were shutting down a flood somewhere else in the complex….And I thought the roaches were bad before! I did feel bad about inadvertently terrorizing the cocker spaniel next door. The cute girl who owned him was at work too.) I could afford an undamaged cover now I guess, but somehow it would feel like messing with karma to replace anything that has spent forty years making me smile.
‘Til next time….Hope this Popsicle stand hasn’t burned to the ground by then!
[NOTE: This is an interview that Mary Weiss gave to Norton Records’ Billy Miller and Miriam Linna in 2007 upon their release of Weiss’s first music in forty years. Weiss has not made any records since and the interview disappeared from Norton’s website a couple of years ago, apparently the victim of some serious weather damage to their offices. I’ve noticed that the links I once provided to that interview still draw a fair amount of interest and I’ve tried to contact Norton several times to see if they are ever planning to repost the interview. As I’ve not heard from them, I assume they are either not planning to do so or are seriously backlogged. I’m reposting the interview here because, even sans the cool graphics and trove of wonderful photos (a few of which I tracked down for some relevant passages here), it’s one of the most important interviews ever given by a rock and roll singer. If you’ve followed along on this site for a while, you know how I feel about the Shangri-Las, but, more to the point, you know how I feel about the often ridiculous narratives that were imposed on them–often by the usual well-intentioned sorts paving the usual roads to hell–during Mary’s forty years of silence. By extension, many of those same false narratives were imposed on the entire Girl Group era (another ongoing concern of this blog), and there has never been more de-bunking assembled in one place than this wide-ranging interview. If Norton re-posts this in the future I will re-link to it. If they request me to take this down, I will do so. In the meantime, I’ll post it here in the interests of historical preservation. It needs to be available somewhere. (And, of course, I encourage everyone to consider buying Norton’s products, especially Weiss’s still valuable CD, Dangerous Game, which now seems likely to be the last we will hear from her on record.)]
(MW is Mary Weiss, BM is Billy Miller, ML is Miriam Linna…I’ve retained the original’s sometimes idiosyncratic punctuation, etc.)
MW: Do you want to start with the Shangri stuff?
ML: Let’s start at the very beginning. Where were you born?
MW: Jamaica, Queens, New York. Jamaica hospital.
BM: Wow, me too. Same hospital!
ML: How about some family background?
MW: I grew up in Queens, Cambria Heights. My father died when I was six weeks old. I’m the youngest of three kids. My brother George was eight years older than me. He passed away in 1996. And my sister Liz was in the Shangri-Las with me.
ML: What drew you to the music?
MW: I became interested in music at about four or five years old. When I was a kid, I loved the Ink Spots and then with rock n’ roll, I loved the Everly Brothers and Neil Sedaka. My brother was much older, so I listened to all of the records he had. He was an Elvis freak. There were guys that sang on the street corner in my neighborhood. I would listen to them and I’d sing with them sometimes.
ML: Do you remember when you started singing.
MW: I always sang, as far back as I can remember. I sang in the church choir. I was in every shcool play and sang in all of them.
ML: Did you go to rock n’ roll shows?
MW: The only rock n’ roll show I attended was in grammar school. Our class wen to Freedomland and the Everly Brothers played. They did so much for everybody regarding harmony. By the time I was fifteen, I was always in the studio, so I didn’t get to go to shows at that time. I really didn’t go to concerts until much later.
ML: What were the local hangouts in your neighborhood for teenagers?
MW: It was a place called Ed’s. We all hung out there. There were all these groups of kids–Ed’s group, Bill’s group, Reno’s group, the 225th Street group and we all meet there, four or five groups of neighborhood kids.
ML: Who were you listening to?
MW: We’d listen to Babalu and Cousin Brucie on WABC. When I was a teenager, I bought all my records at Korvettes. They had the best record department and they were cheap.
BM: Great store! They’d print their own charts every week.
ML: How did you meet the Ganser sisters?
MW: I met the twins in grammar school although they went to public school and I went to Catholic school–so much for organized religiou! They lived a few blocks away. We hung out at their house and began singing together there and on the p layground. We all had an interest in music and our voiced blended well. At that time, we were really pursuing our own sond. We all went to Andrew Jackson High School for a while.
ML: Did you call yourselves the Shangri-Las right from the start?
MW: You know we didn’t have a name initially. We were going to make a record and we said “We better get a name–fast!” We were driving on Long Island and saw a restaurant called the Shangri-La. That’s where we got the name.
BM: Were you the lead singer from the start?
MW: Actually, my sister Liz was at first. On the first demo, on “Wishing Well,” that’s Liz. She actually sang both sides (“Hate To Say I Told You So”). She also sang “Shout.” “Wishing Well” was actually our demo and they played around with it and released it.
BM: Spokane Records. That was Artie Ripp, right?
MW: Right. Kama Sutra Productions. That was very short lived.
BM: I love that first record you made, “Simon Says” with the Lonnie Mack type guitar and the Bo Diddley beat.
MW: Liz was the lead singer on that one, too.
BM: You were singing at hops and dances, who was booking you when you started?
MW: Before we went to Red Bird, we had a manager names Tony Michaels.
BM: Now you met George “Shadow” Morton through Bob Lewis, Babalu from WABC.
MW: Right. Bob Lewis. That’s where I met George, at Bob’s apartment. Tony Michaels took us over there so he could hear us sing and get his opinion. George was there, I don’t know why he was there, but that’s how we met him. True story.
ML: In a nutshell, can you describe Shadow for us?
MW: George is one of the most colorful, unique people I’ve ever met in my life. Extremely talented. He used to be very difficult to get into a room at a scheduled time, but a brilliant man.
BM: An amazing producer.
MW: I was with George at some arena show when he met Phil Spector.
BM: Wow! What was that like?
MW: Oil and water! That’s all I can say. I was not happy to be there.
BM: There’s a 45 by a group called the Beatle-Ettes produced by a George Morton…
MW: I know what you’re going to ask and that’s not the Shangri-Las. They say a group called the Bon Bons is the Shangri-Las. That thing is everywhere. I see it all the time and go “Who the hell are they?”
BM: It doesn’t make any sense because you and Shadow pretty much started together.
MW: Right. You got me! I have no idea where people get this stuff.
BM: Did Shadow make any plans for you right away?
MW: No, not until we did the demo for “Remember.” Billy Joel played piano on it. George said he had a phone conversation with Billy years later and Billy said, “You owe me $67. You never paid me scale!”
BM: Was the demo really over seven minutes long like legend has it?
MW: I don’t think it was quite that long, it’s been exaggerated over the years, but it was longer than the actual record. At the time, it was unheard of to extend a record to more than a few minutes. That seemed abnormal to me.
BM: Still, it seems that it would be weird for Shadow to go that far out on a limb his first time out, with so much at stake.
MW: It would.
BM: So the whole reason for making the demo was that George had told Jeff Barry at Red Bird that he was a songwriter even though he’d never written anything before. In your words what transpired to bring all of this about? What exactly was the story?
MW: As far as “Remember (Walkin in the Sand)” goes, I think you should ask George Morton. My involvement with the song was in the studio.
ML: It’s a complex song.
MW: Initially it was done instrumentally and kind of evolved. I like that song a lot.
BM: And you did that at Mirasound in Manhattan?
MW: We did most of them there. We did use Ultra-Sonic sometimes. We did most of our demos there.
BM: My Boy Scout troop went to Ultra-Sonic in 1965 to see a real recording studio. I was really into it until the engineer goes, “You boys should have been here last night. The Shangri-Las were here.” That’s really not the kind of thing to tell a room full of teenage boys if you want them to keep paying attention.
MW: That wasn’t nice. It could have been fun!
BM: Now you tell me! The Shangri-Las first hit at the start of the British Invasion. That’s a mighty tough uphill battle.
MW: Absolutely. Look at the Beach Boys.
ML: When “Remember” hit, you started playing right away….
MW: Right away, yes. The Brooklyn Fox Theatre. I was traveling all the time. When I wasn’t doing that I was in the studio. When I wasn’t doing that I was rehearsing.
ML: Were you still in high school.
MW: I missed out on doing any real high school stuff. I went to professional school where you could leave if you had to tour. It was necessary. When you do television shows when you’re a kid, they put a tutor backstage in the corner with a little book. It’s the law. Kinda strange. Paul Jabara was my closest friend there. He wrote “Last Dance” for Donna Summer. Paul had the greatest sense of humor. I wish he was still around. I miss him to this day. I’d tag along to auditions with him. Once he stood on stage, pulled out his sheet music for the piano player–about ten feet long–and broke into “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” I sat in the back of theatre and was laughing so hard I was crying.
ML: When the Shangri-Las first became successful, did neighborhood friends act differently towards you?
MW: It’s a catch-22. They act differently towards you and meanwhile, you’re still hitting that handball and hanging out, but you don’t fit in anymore. It’s them that’s changed, not you. At the time, you think, “Oh, my God!”
ML: Were the twins like you? Was there a shared Shangri-Las persona?
MW: Mary Ann and Margie were more assertive, actually, as far as their public persona. Both of them were much gruffer than me. They both had great senses of humor. They were pranksters.
BM: What’d they do?
MW: Mostly stupid stuff. Margie added an apostrophe and an ‘s’ to Marvin Gaye’s door and took the ‘s’ off his last name so his door read “Marvin’s Gaye”.
ML: Did the twins have similar personalities?
MW: They were very similar personality-wise. Margie was more aggressive than Mary Ann. When my sister wasn’t in the group and it was just me and the twins, it was like “Hello? What do you mean ‘majority rules’?!” It was very devastating for Margie when Mary Ann died.
BM: Your sister didn’t tour at first, but she still sang on all the records, right?
MW: Yes, the four of us were on the records. Liz is an extremely talented singer. We’ve been through so much together. Liz looked like Bardot when she was young. She still lives near me now and has been happily married for 25 years.
ML: You went straight from playing neighborhood hops to big stages and national TV. Were you terrified?
MW: It didn’t faze me much. Maybe it should have (laughs).
BM: Those Murray the K shows at the Brooklyn Fox must have been brutal.
MW: They were real brutal. From early morning until late at night. Seven sets, back to back. You have a record on the charts–there you are! I did the Cow Palace and I don’t know how many big arenas. Right after “Remember” came out, James Brown hired us to do a Coliseum show in Texas. They had signs put up COLORED GIRLS’ and WHITE GIRLS’ bathrooms and I got in a huge fight with a cop because I used the black women’s bathroom and he drew his gun on me. I was absolutely amazed. This is backstage in a Coliseum and the white bathroom is on the entire other side of the floor. I really had to go and then get onstage!
BM: Is that where the song “What’s a Girl Supposed to Do” got its inspiration.
MW: (laughs) I’ve never seen anything like that. What surprised me more was the other women in the bathroom looking at me with their mouths open. Earlier, when we did the afternoon sound check, James Brown’s mouth fell open! He turned around and looked at me–here’s this little blonde girl. He thought we were black. All the other performers were black and we were very nervous because we didn’t know how the audience was going to respond. It turned out to be a great show!
BM: That’s wild.
MW: We worked with James a few time. I was at his house once. He lived in St. Albans, the next town over from Cambria Heights. He had “JB” on the gate. We were just BS’ing there, basically. I liked him.
BM: There’s a story of you putting Murray the K’s motorcycle on the roof of the Fox.
MW: Come on, Murray didn’t even have a motorcycle.
BM: But you did hit him in the face with a pie onstage at the Fox.
MW: That was long overdue! (laughs) One fun thing we’d do at the Fox, was if there was a really good group onstage, we’d grab a microphone behind the back curtain and there’s be four part harmony going on like a chorus. It was wonderful!
BM: You played a bunch with the Zombies.
MW: They were great guys. Still are. I just saw them play at B.B. King’s. They’re still great! I wish them the best in everything they do.
BM: What other groups did you pal around with?
MW: I didn’t get to pal around with anybody. We were so busy. It was very different then. Now these singers say how rough they have it. They don’t have a clue. Ride in a bus every night. Sleep every other night. See how that feels. People don’t realize how hard it was back then. There were no monitors at the time. Sometimes you were screaming just to hear yourself singing. The Dick Clark Caravans, they were grueling shows. Every other night you’d sleep in a hotel. Sleep on the bus, then you’d have to get up and look perky. It’s exhausting. But, there was one great thing at the end of the Dick Clark tours, because he’d have Caravans going all over the country and we’d all mee in one place and they’d have like a Battle of the Bands type thing with all the stars. Those were cool shows. You’d meet up in one arena, do one big show and then we’d all go home.
BM: Sometimes there were four of you and at various times, Liz, Margie and Mary Ann were off the road…
MW: And I was the one constant member. That was it. There’s lots of BS written about our group. I’ve seen it written that we missed concerts, that the other girls did some shows without me. That’s simply not true. I never missed a single show. I couldn’t take a break. Everyone got exhausted and could take time off. Touring was exhausting. Most of the times when I woke up, I didn’t know what state I was in. Too many buses, too many flights. Touring was a blur.
BM: Red Bird was owned by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and George Goldner. What were your impressions of them.
MW: We were crazy about George Goldner. In fact, at the end of our first year on Red Bird, we bought George a huge television set, at that time, they didn’t have them that big everywhere. We gave it to him with a big gold plaque on the front as a thank you present. It said, “George Goldner, Thank You, The Shangri-Las”. It was a gesture from us. I don’t think he got enough credit for anything at Red Bird. He was a kid who never grew up. Riding around in a Cadillac with the top down. He was like a very large child. I loved him.
BM: And Leiber and Stoller?
MW: Leiber and Stoller are wonderful people. They brought a tremendous amount of enthusiasm to all their artists. I have a lot of respect for them both, but they didn’t work with us directly. They worked on songs with George Morton, then he worked with us.
BM: “Leader of the Pack” was the second Red Bird record and the biggest one. There really wasn’t a motorcycle in the studio on the session, was there?
MW: I’ve heard that, too.
BM: Yeah, because you hear it roaring away. Where did it go?
MW: Studio B. (laughs)
BM: That guy on the album cover, was he anybody special?
MW: Absolutely not! And he sure didn’t look like any biker I knew!
ML: On the Red Bird recordings, they double-tracked your voice sometimes….
MW: Yes, on a few.
BM: That was quite a team that you had in the studio at Red Bird – (producer) Shadow Morton, (engineer) Brooks Arthur and (arranger) Artie Butler.
MW: Absolutely! I know. You can’t ever give them enough credit. The Shangri-Las was one of Brooksie’s first things. That’s why we’re friends to this day. Brooks Arthur is extremely talented in so many areas. Artie Butler is one of the most brilliant arrangers I’ver ever heard. I love both those guys.
BM: Those sessions were pretty monumental. Would you come in and sing or would you get more involved in the whole process?
MW: Oh, I always stayed there. I stayed for every mixing session.
ML: Even before you had to sing your parts?
MW: Right. I was there for every step.
BM: Would they listen to your input?
MW: Oh, sure.
BM: How much free rein did the group have on vocal arrangements? On something like say, “The Train Fom Kansas City,” that introduction is extraordinary.
MW: OK, on “The Train From Kansas City,” I worked hard with Jeff (Barry) on that. You can hear the flavor to it.
BM: Unmistakably the Shangri-Las.
MW: Our group, I mean even for that time period, the harmonies were unique. The blending of the voices was unique.
BM: Like “Out in the Streets”– flawless record. That’s my absolute favorite Shangri-Las record.
MW: That’s my favorite, too.
BM: Just curious, what would be your five favorite Shangri-Las records?
MW: “Out in the Streets,” “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” “I Can Never Go Home Anymore,” “Past, Present and Future” and “The Train From Kansas City.” I also like the Mercury record “I’ll Never Learn.”
BM: “Out in the Streets” and “Give Us Your Blessings,” you look in the national charts, and they weren’t real huge smash hits, but here in New York, those records were monsters. You heard them everywhere.
MW: Yes, they were biggest here. Definitely.
BM: Did you know that “Out in the Streets” was the last song played on WINS before they switched from rock ‘n’ roll to all news?
MW: Yes, I did. I thought that was quite touching. Very neat. There were a lot of great Djs then. They seemed to be more involved than nowadays where it’s all programmed.
BM: I dig “Heaven Only Knows” a lot.
MW: Really? Why’s that?
BM: I guess when I boutht “Give Us Your Blessings” as a kid and I got a great B-side, it was like getting an extra record.
MW: Oh, I hated it when the B-sides on records stunk. We always wanted both sides to be cool.
BM: Your flips were all killers–“Heaven Only Knows,” “The Train From Kansas City,” “Dressed in Black”…
ML: That deliberate spoken part….
MW: I always thought “Past, Present and Future” was a unique sounding record. And everybody that’s written about it said it was about rape. That was news to me! At the time, you need to remember, people are forgetting about the teenage angst. When somebody breaks your heart, you don’t want anyone near you. Things are very different now. Kids grow up younger and younger.
ML: Right. In the Shangri-Las, you had young voices singing about pretty heavy emotional stuff. It was like “Yeah, that’s how I feel.” You don’t have to relate to adult themes.
MW: When you’re a kid, who hasn’t felt like that? When somebody blows you off or hurts you, it’s very traumatic.
ML: Especially having a girl’s voice saying it. Other girls can relate, like “I have real feelings.”
MW: I thought we all felt like that.
BM: And your approach is so powerful. It sounds like you’re crying by the end of “I Can Never Go Home Anymore.”
MW: I was crying. That whole sentiment…it’s kinda funny because at the time I really didn’t talk to my mother at all.
BM: Your vocal delivery on “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” and “Past, Present and Future” was very personal, very intimate.
MW: The studio is a very private place. I always thought it should be. Actuall, at one Shangri-Las session, Mary Travers from Peter, Paul and Mary showed up. She was pregnant at the time. I was extremely impressed that she came. I would have been very nervous if I had known in advance that she was going to be there. She’s a wonderful talent and a great person.
BM: Who’s that singing the lead vocal on “I’m Blue.”
MW: Mary Ann.
BM: What do you remember about “Right Now and Not Later?”
MW: Not a whole hell of a lot! (laughs)
BM: Were there any songs that the Shangri-Las recorded for Red Bird that never got released?
ML: You must have been excited when your first album came out.
MW: All this stuff is exciting. Don’t get me wrong if you’re not getting that impression. It’s wonderful stuff when you open BILLBOARD and you’ve got two pages. “There it is! All right!!”
ML: Were the Red Bird sessions specifically for singles or did you try a few things and saw what clicked?
MW: One song most of the time, especially the larger sessions like “Remember” or “I Can Never Go Home Anymore.” The strings on that? I love them. Those were huge sessions with the room full of musicians.
BM: When rock videos started appearing, I always thought they could never capture what the Shangri-Las and Shadow Morton put into my imagination. Since I first heard “Remember,” I always pictured it all taking place at Long Beach on Long Island, for some reason.
MW: I did, too. Later, I pictured it in Florida. When we went to England we found, the British spent more time setting up everything as far as television goes. They’re meticulous. I walk in the studio and the entire soundstage was filled with sand and a giant grandfather clock for one song. I just could not believe it. It was beautiful. Dusty was on that show.
BM: Dusty Springfield?
MW: Yes, Dusty is an absolutely amazing talent. The Shangri-Las were in London doing Top of the Pops and Ready! Steady! Go! Dusty was having a very large party in her flat. It started out all civilized, nice French doors and antique desks, but she liked to start food fights. And she started one and I’m hiding under this lovely French desk with her manager and fish and food are flying by! They were actually throwing pies later in the night. So Mary Annd goes to put her boots on and they were filled with fish! Dusty was a kinky girl, but a true talent. But, Mary Ann got even with Dusty. She waited and waited and the next time we were with Dusty at the Brooklyn Fox, Mary Ann put fish in Dusty’s shoes. And that’s called….payback! (laughs)
MW: Dusty also flung crockery at the Fox. There was this place where she bought a ton of cheap crockery. We learned the fine art of throwing plates there. Stand at one end of the corridor and fling it with all your might. It makes a loud crash and gets rid of the stress. Parts of Dusty were very self-destructive, but the other side of her was so much fun. I’ll always think of her fondly, mo matter what anybody writes about her. The world will remember her talent. I’ll always remember her laughter, the fine art of crockery throwing….and her talent!
ML: Your records were pretty notorious right from the start.
MW: Look at “Leader.” It was banned in Britain. What was there to ban?
ML: In England there was a lot of trouble between the Mods and the Rockers. That’s why “Leader of the Pack” was probably banned.
MW: I was so proud. I was a Rocker!
MW: I got off the plane dressed in black leather. They definitely knew where I stood. (laughs)
ML: And what did you make of the Mods?
MW: The Mods were just not home. To each his own. Their lifestyle was…(laughs)…I was never into fashion.
ML: Which is wild because you became such a fashion icon.
MW: I could never picture myself sitting at a runway show, could you?
ML: No, never. But that’s the great thing. You subconsiously started a whole look.
MW: Who cares?
BM: I feel like I’m a guest on The View…
ML: But you only went to England, no other countries?
MW: Pretty much. There were a million things booked. I remember sitting in Los Angeles with these Japanese people and they were giving me scripts and things and making plans for us to go there.
ML: But you never did.
MW: Never did. It should have happened but there was just no time.
ML: Did you follow the charts?
MW: The charts thing is a strange position to be in. Once you have a smash hit, the record company is like, “OK, here’s the next one. I feel sorry for artists today. They’re here and gone and hey bring on th next one. I just saw Chrissie Hynde talking about today’s artists and what they face. Nobody gets behind them or develops them anymore. Bring on the next midriff section…
BM: Do you see the Shangri-Las in any act today?
MW: Maybe like the Donnas. I can see our attitude.
ML: Who were your favorites during the Shangri-Las years?
MW: I loved Dusty. The Jefferson Airplane, that might have been a little later, but I remember I first heard them on the way to the Fox Theatre. I saw Jimi Hendrix in the Village before he was famous. My jaw dropped. You know what was a great time? I went to a big party at Andy Warhol’s one day. It was fascinating. He had a huge loft with a deck and umbrellas and the bathroom had a golden throne. Very cool. Ultra Violet was there. Lots of cool people.
BM: There was a Shangri-Las Day at the New York World’s Fair.
MW: How did you know that?
BM: Because I remember being pissed that I didn’t get to go. We were always at the Word’s Fair.
MW: Me, too. I thought it was cool. They had a Monorail with our name on it and we performed.
BM: Mary, even being a star by then, that had to be a big thrill–hometown girls make good….
MW: Oh sure. We loved it. We all did.
BM: The Shangri-Las played at the New York Paramount with the Beatles. Did you meet them?
MW: No, they were on one floor and everybody else was on another. At the Paramount, Margie saved out the window high up so that everyone thought it was the Beatles waving. The crowd went nuts!
BM: When you gals….
MW: You gals? At least you didn’t say Girl Groups.
BM: Sorry Mary. No, I know better than to mention Girl Groups.
MW: Oh, kill me now! Thank you. How do you take an entire sex and dump them into one category? Girl Groups, I mean, please! What if we all had penises?
BM: Uh, that would have seriously affected the crush I had on you as a kid.
ML: People tend to categorize….
MW: Count me out. If Girl Groups were products, what were Boy Groups? (Looking at photo) Ow! You know who did this to my hair? Monti Rock III.
ML: How did Monti Rock end up doing your hair?
MW: He did our hair on that album cover nobody likes on Mercury, where we look Mod. Monti, wherever you are, what were you thinking?
ML: But you look so sultry there, like Veronica Lake.
MW: I look stupid. I didn’t like it at all.
ML: And those boots…
MW: Are you kidding? I’ll tell you what boots I really liked. They buttoned up and they were kid leather. There were like old fashioned 1890’s boots with cool heels. I got those at Saks.
ML: Boots became your signature.
MW: Yes, that’s why I like those outfits on the LEADER album. That was my thing.
ML: Whose suggestion was that?
MW: Nobody’s. That was us. It’s funny because it created such a hoopla, like we were tough, whatever and all it is, is a white shirt, a vest and a pair of black pants.
ML: But the black slacks, slacks at all, you really did something different there. It really defined the Shangri-Las.
MW: Jeans don’t fit on everyone.
BM: Yeah, when you’d see the Supremes on Ed Sullivan, hey’d have evening gowns on, old people’s clothes.
MW: I used to get my slacks on Eighth Street in the Village in a Men’s Store. People would look at me like I was gay because I like low rise pants. I don’t get it, quite frankly.
ML: These outfits were something else. (holds up I CAN NEVER GO HOME ANYMORE album)
MW: Yes, that’s what everyone was wearing ten years later, like Spandex.
ML: Now you couldn’t have bought those in a store. You had to have those made.
ML: Who designed them?
MW: We did. We just sat and did them ourselves.
ML: You don’t still have your boots, do you?
MW: Do you still have your boots from 1965?
BM: She might….
ML: The Shangri-Las got a lot of magazine coverage, too.
MW: We did a lot of interviews back then. “What do you do in your spare time?” What spare time?
BM: I have a record where the Shangri-Las are being interviewed and you get asked things like, “Do guys on the street really give you a great big kiss?”
MW: (laughs) “Ew, get away from me!”
BM: You hear so many stories about how bad you were….
MW: WHAT ABOUT IT!? (laughs)
ML: There’s stories about you tying up a guy and kidnapping him.
MW: You know, I don’t remember that, but if I did, he deserved it!
BM: And that you had guns….
MW: I did purchase a gun once, a little Derringer. I bought a gun after somebody tried to break into my hotel room. There were these glass panels on the side of the door and all of a sudden I see this arm coming through. Not only was I scared to death, but there were large amounts of money in the room. You’re on the road with no protection. But, I was a little kid. I didn’t know. Back then, you could walk in anywhere and buy a gun. But the FBI came to my mother’s house and said, “Will you please tell your daughter she’ll be arrested if she gets off the plane with her gun?” We just finished a tour in Florida and I turned it in at the police station down there.
BM: Did they get a chaperone for the group at any point?
MW: If you can call an eighteen-year-old a proper chaperone. Maybe nineteen, but that’s as grown up as it got. We had a road manager, Fat Frankie, for a while, then he managed NRBQ following that. That wasn’t much supervision. One of our other road managers was a black belt in karate. Once, there was a car full of drunken guys weaving all over a bridge, waving beer bottles and stuff and it was getting very dangerous. They kept swerving into our car and it was very scary. I was so petrified, my heart was in my throat. It was as if they thought they had the right to do this. They could have killed us all. Louis stopped the car and took them all on. They were flying everywhere, all over the bridge. You had no choice in the matter. It was a dark road with nowhere to go, there were no cell phones then. I’m glad he was there. I could see the headlines now, JIMMY KILLS MARY ON BRIDGE. It was much different than now. It’s very hard to explain. Nothing was organized. It was ‘Here’a list of shows, get on the road.” I was only fifteen.
ML: Now what about the night club scene?
MW: (whispers) I shouldn’t have even been in there. I was fifteen. We’d go in them and hang out, but we were more geared to the teen clubs. But we played the Whiskey A Go Go.
ML: Did the Shangri-Las work with one booking agency?
MW: Different ones. William Morris and others. But, you’d set limitations on them or they’d beat you to death, you’d never be off. You’d have to rehearse and record and do television, too.
BM: The Shangri-Las made so many TV appearances like Shindig and Hullabaloo. Here in New York, I never missed the Clay Cole Show. You seemed to be on it all the time…
MW: All the time. We sure were.
BM: It was almost like, time for Clay Cole, let’s see what’s new by the Shangri-Las.
MW: Clay had us on a lot. That was great! I’d walk in the studio, I knew all the guards by name, they were all nice, reputable people. I really felt at home there.
BM: And The Soupy Sales Show you were on that, too.
MW: I loved Soupy Sales! White Fang and Black Tooth. I loved it!
BM: And Philo Kvetch and Onions Oregano!
MW: Oniions Oregano–yeah, yeah! They had a gazillion White Fangs’ arms becaues the man doing White Fang kept burning it with his cigar! White Fang rules! I’d love to see the old Soupy tape again.
ML: What was it like dealing with mobs of fans?
MW: A lot of times it was very frightening. One time in an aquarium there was no security and I just about had my clothes ripped off. And the fans with pens almost poking your eye out. There was no security then. We were just winging it. When there’s a lot of them and one of you, it gets scary. I was in the Village one time and there was like thirty bikers and they recognized me. Luckily, they were fans and nothing happened.
BM: When Red Bird went out of business in 1966 and you signed to Mercury, how different was it from Red Bird? Did you notice a change?
MW: Definitely. There really wasn’t much support.
BM: Mercury issued two singles and the greatest hits album. The last Shangri-Las single “Take the Time” from 1967 is weird, a pro-Vietnam record.
MW: I never wanted to record that song. I was completely against the Vietnam War and I protested accordingly. Still, the Shangri-Las supported our servicemen and women and I’ve done many shows for them.
ML: The tough appearance of the Shangri-Las, that wasn’t just an image thing, you really were tough.
MW: In certain ways I am. When you’re a kid and you’re on the road and nobody’s got your back, you better be tough. You better act as tough as you can because they’ll devour you. We scared lots of people away, made lots of bands behave and back down. What else are you going to do?
ML: That wasn’t just you. That was your sister and the twins, too?
MW: Absolutely. It was us against the world, really. Miriam, you would have done the same thing. You would. It was better when we had our own band traveling with us. It was more like a family.
ML: One thing that makes the Shangri-Las different than a lot of female acts of the day, was most of them seemed overprotected. And it virtually was always a family member calling the shots.
MW: Can you imagine? Mommy is there to wipe your nose?
ML: You wouldn’t have had a chance to be tough. It’s what makes you who you are.
MW: Absolutely not. And I’d have been a different person if my father hadn’t died. They’re all life experiences. Some good, some bad. It’s the same thing when everybody’s your best friend and then they suddenly go away. That is a very hard lesson in life. Who are your friends? That is tough stuff. I guess in a way I’m tough. I’m a survivor.
BM: Was there a defining moment when the Shangri-Las split up?
MW: Everybody around us was suing each other. Basically to me, the litigation just got so insane and it wasn’t about music anymore.
ML: Did you go back home?
MW: I moved out on my eighteenth birthday. I moved into a hotel in Manhattan, then Gramercy Park and then I moved to San Francisco for a while. It was hard to get into the music business and it was even harder to get out. I couldn’t go near another record company for ten years.
ML: For the next ten years you couldn’t record?
MW: No. It was absolutely insane. And that was also how long I was still recognized in the street, which made it even more difficult. People don’t realize how comfortable it is being Joe Blow, private citizen. Everybody wants to be a star. I never quite got that, honestly.
ML: But singing was what you wanted to do, and when that was no longer an option, it must have been horrifying.
MW: It was. I lost my way.
ML: Ten year sentence, that’s rough
MW: It was real rough.
ML: It seems like you had a positive feeling and then to have it come crashing down…
MW: Yes and no. I could have pursued it further but how much deeper do you want to get into legal nonsense? At some point you just have to cut it off. I always thought that someday I’d go back to music, I just didn’t know when.
ML: Were you being pigeon holed or typecast? Did you want to do other types of music?
MW: Afterwards? Absolutely. I could have sung lots of stuff. I was always the one who pursued things here and there and I went up to a publisher, but disco was popular and they wanted me to put a gardenia in my hair and ….(dances)
BM: At least you don’t have bad disco albums coming back to haunt you. If you had to pick one song, a post Shangri-Las song by somebody else, to tackle, what would it be?
MW: I love Patti Smith. I always wish I had recorded “Because the Night.” What a great freakin’ song.
BM: The Shangri-Las got back together in 1977 and recorded for Seymour Stein at Sire Records. Seymour worked with the Shangri-Las in the sixties, right?
MW: Seymour was our road manager for a short period of time. Margie was a complete prankster and I don’t think Seymour got it. Kids will be kids. I think the fireworks didn’t set well with him. When we were touring and we were in states that sold fireworks, we always bought them and set them off.
BM: Teenage girls with explosives, what’s not to like?
ML: But nothing you recorded with Sire was ever released. Why was that?
MW: I was very grateful to Seymour years later for giving us a shot with Sire, but it wasn’t there, material-wise. I don’t want anything released that I don’t believe in. It just wasn’t there. I wish (Richard) Gottehrer had been brought in. It just wasn’t right. I welcomed the opportunity from Seymour Stein, but it just didn’t work out. We recorded a few things, but it wasn’t happening.
BM: Did Liz and Margie feel the same way?
MW: Yes, we all did.
BM: But the Shangri-Las did one unannounced show at CBGB at the time.
MW: That was cool! It was impromptu. We just walked in and had fun.
BM: Why didn’t you do more shows like that?
MW: I didn’t want to do old stuff. I could have done that for thirty years.
ML: The Shangri-Las accomplished a lot.
MW: I come from an extremely poor family. The Gansers were relatively poor. Nobody had any money. No money for attorneys. So considering where the four of us came from, with no support, no guidance and nothing behind us, we didn’t have proper outfits onstage. I mean nothing. It’s a miracle in itself to come from those circumstances and have hit records, so I’m very grateful.
ML: So where have you been?
MW: I went to work for an architectural firm and I was seriously into it. Then I got into commercial interiors, huge projects, buildings. Then we hit a point in our lives where you go, “What am I doing?” I knew where I feel at home and I’ve never felt more at home that with music. Either I’m gonna do it or not.
ML: Cool! Welcome back.
MW: Thanks, it’s been way too long. I look forward to recording and my future in music. Long live rock ‘n’ roll.
Since my first post on the Hall several years ago, at least a few of the acts I considered egregious oversights (Donna Summer, Linda Ronstadt, The “5” Royales) have found their way in. I’m confident I’ve had nothing whatsoever to do with this, except maybe cosmically, but the cosmos must be attended, so I take heart and keep plugging away. My lists of the most deserving not yet inducted are still very much the same and can be found HERE, HERE and HERE.
I try to do something a little different each year, simply because my relationship to each new batch of nominees is bound to change at least a little. This year, it’s a simple breakdown: 1) Acts (well, one anyway) who are in my own pantheon and therefore no-brainers; 2) Acts I have at least some strong feeling for, either because I think they filled some place in Rock History that can’t be entirely ignored or I just like their records a lot; and 3) Acts I don’t pretend to get.
So, in reverse order:
Acts I don’t pretend to get (or can at least easily eliminate from this particular ballot):
Nine Inch Nails and The Smiths: Charter members of the Gloom Squad, representativesof which, given the air of stagnation and hopelessness that began to dominate the culture in the late eighties and has continued to suck at our collective oxygen supply every single day since, we are almost certainly stuck with in perpetuity. If they are your thing, peace be upon you, but let’s do cancel the dinner reservations.
Yes: I really like “Roundabout.” But, as one record arguments go, it’s not exactly “La Bamba,” or “Summertime Blues.”
The J.B.s.: Very worthy. Please induct them immediately in the Musical Excellence or Sidemen category, as should have been done long ago. Can’t see spending a vote on them in the performer category.
Chicago: I’m at least a little torn on this one. I do like a lot of their records (more than I think I do actually, unless some event like this one forces me to focus). But I can’t say I’ve listened to them a lot so I just don’t have a strong feeling one way or the other. I will say their lack of critical respect and their capacity for annoying the crit-illuminati by selling millions of records hardly count against them in my book. That said, if the ice is beginning to thaw around the idea of acknowledging AM giants as a necessary and vital part of Rock and Roll History, give me Three Dog Night or the Fifth Dimension any day. Not to mention Tommy James.
Chaka Khan: I could see voting for her some time, especially if (as happened in the past) she was being considered along with her great interracial funk band, Rufus. But she might be one of those acts I can always consider voting for in theory who just never happens to crack the top five on any given ballot. Time will tell. BTW: Interracial funk bands have a way of getting overlooked by the Hall: Think War, Hot Chocolate, KC and the Sunshine Band. Apparently Sly and the Family Stone are enough for the “Hey I’m not really opposed to the concept” crowd. I’d like to see this change, so Rufus would be more likely to get my vote than Chaka alone.
Acts I’d at least strongly consider:
Janet Jackson: She’s a strong candidate and, as someone who generally chides the Hall for seriously slacking on recognition of women and black people, she should be a natural. She was a major superstar and I even like a lot of her records. I can’t say I ever had that special “moment” with her, though. There’s no one record that makes me pull her records off the shelf at least every once in a while. Since this is very rare for me with any rock and roll act who had even a modest run of sustained success I have to be at least a little bit suspicious. Why Janet? Why aren’t we connecting like we should? Why are Chaka and Chicago in the not-ready-for-consideration category when no record you ever made is on a level with “Tell Me Something Good” or “Just You ‘n’ Me?” Why does life hold so many mysteries? Withholding judgment on this one…
N.W.A.: The other act on this ballot who are considered a likely slam dunk. Overall that’s a good sign. I can’t remember the last time the two favorites going in were African-American. Wish I liked their music as well as their story. I mean, should burnishing my street cred feel so much like eating my broccoli? Or reading my Chomsky? Withholding….yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.
Chic: Yes, yes they should be in. I love “Le Freak” unconditionally (as well as a number of Rodgers and Edwards’ productions for other artists) so there is no problem with the “connection” missing in the previous two entries. And yes, I’m probably going to vote for them. I still don’t quite get why they’ve been on the ballot ten times and Barry White and KC and the Sunshine Band have zero nominations between them…But I’m probably still going to vote for them. Let’s wait and see.
Deep Purple: I was keener on them until I started listening to Joe South again and realized his version of “Hush” not only wastes theirs on the, you know, emotional level where you except a singer-songwriter to have an advantage, but actually rocks harder. Still, they had a real role in making hard rock “heavy.” And I wouldn’t want to put together the classic rock comp that’s going to play on the Celestial Jukebox at the End of Time without “Highway Star” or “My Woman From Tokyo” somewhere in the mix.
Los Lobos: They made one truly great album. That was enough for Guns N’ Roses, whose great album wasn’t quite as great (though it sold a lot more and caused a lot more head-banging). It’s enough for me to certainly put them under strong consideration. I wish they were a little less professorial, of course. But if rock and roll is truly democratic, surely there must be room for the professors too….Mustn’t there?
Steve Miller: The Hall is often perverse. Should we even be surprised that this very long in coming nomination is for Miller alone and not The Steve Miller Band, which is the title under which he made his records? Sure there were a lot of different people in those bands, but the Hall has made room for similar aggregations before, so who knows what the thinking is. As for the records themselves, I’m obviously putting him ahead of Chicago, even if it’s only a hair. I’m hazy on his early, more critically acclaimed work. It was out of San Francisco so familiarity with it, might make me feel more strongly for or against (in a Grateful Dead, no, Jefferson Airplane maybe, CCR or Sly or Janis, yes, sort of way). Which leaves me wondering if the lead-in riff to “Jet Airliner” is enough to make him worthy all by itself? I lived the Seventies. I very specifically lived 1977. And I have to say it’s a very close call.
Cheap Trick and The Cars: Gee, not a month ago I was gently lamenting that I clearly liked Power Pop a lot better than the Hall did, and here they go and put two of the Big Five on the ballot at once. Granted I don’t listen to either as much as Big Star or Raspberries or the Go-Go’s, but they’re both fine bands and the Cars have the additional lift of being the most popular band in the little-genre-that-couldn’t-quite-save-rock-and-roll-but-sure-had-fun-trying. Hall worthy? Definitely. Possible to vote for one and not the other? Tough call. I think I can manage it. I think I’ll probably have to. Which one?….Which one, knowing that the chances of the three even greater bands being considered in the future ride heavily on how these two do? Which one, knowing that these two have the decided advantage of being mysteriously accepted at “classic rock” formats?…Oh, God.
Spinners: The premiere vocal group of the seventies, the last decade when the competition was fierce and the distinction therefore amounted to an epic accomplishment. Stop the nonsense. Stop dumping on seventies R&B. Stop dumping on vocal groups. Put them in already, so I can start banging the drum for the Stylistics and the Chi-Lites! (insert maniacal laughter here!)
(and a Rodgers and Edwards bonus….)
…First alternate, the Cars…
If you want to participate in fan balloting you can access the Future Rock Legends site here (you have to scroll down a bit). The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s actual ballot, which has a very small effect on actual voting (but, I suspect, may have a very real effect on considerations for future nominees) is here.
Thought this was worthy of its own review ahead of the monthly book report (which is running a little late). Thanks to Neal Umphred for reminding me of its existence and encouraging me to finally track it down. You might also read it as my R.I.P. for Paul Williams and a mea culpa, since I missed the news of his passing a couple of years back and certainly would have noted it here had I known:
Outlaw Blues (Paul Williams, 1970)
If rock criticism had a “father” Paul Williams was it. There were a lot of young men (not, so far as I can tell, many young women or many of either gender who were other than young) trying to write about the effect rock and roll was having on them and the world in the mid-sixties. But Williams was the first to actually get a national magazine off the ground (Crawdaddy) while at the same time pioneering an open-hearted writing, editing and interviewing style that, just coincidentally, would end up, after the promise of the sixties had burned off, remaining forever at odds with the continuation of Standard American Business Practice as Usual.
Outlaw Blues is a collection of early Crawdaddy pieces and catches its moment–those ever-befuddling sixties–like very little else. If Williams didn’t turn out to be quite the businessman Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner was or quite the writer Lester Bangs was, he was nonetheless more visionary than either, and the person whose work effectively broke the ground those opposing spirits spent their lives tilling.
It’s worth remembering that Williams was aging from roughly 19 to 21 when these pieces were written. Naivete is a certain part of the book’s charm. An even greater part, pretty much inextricable from that naive quality, is the sense of being there, fully present at the dawn of our current confusion, at a moment when all things, good and bad, seemed possible, a moment Williams, to a degree few did then and nobody does now, invariably expressed in terms ranging from acute:
“Perhaps the favorite indoor sport in America today is discussing, worshiping, disparaging, and above all interpreting Bob Dylan.” (that from July, 1966)
“Rock gave Jim Morrison the freedom to slip ‘learn to forget’ into the middle of a seduction song.” (April, 1967)
“Perhaps I don’t make myself clear. I only want to point out that if we found out tomorrow that Bob Dylan was a 64-year-old woman who’d changed her sex, and a proven Communist agent, we might be surprised, but the words to ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ would not change in the slightest. It would still be the same song.
“I will say, to dispel any doubts, that Mr. Dylan is not a 64-year-old woman or an agent of anything. I met him in Philadelphia last winter; he is a friendly and straightforward young man, interested in what others are saying and doing, and quite willing to talk openly about himself. He is pleased with his success; he wanted it, he’s worked for it honestly, and he’s achieved it. We talked about the critics, and he says he resents people who don’t know what’s going on and pretend they do. He named some names; it is my fervid hope that when this article is finished, and read, my name will not be added to the list.” (July, 1966)
“You know what I mean, that special feeling after the last words of a book, that goes on and on extending that book and yourself across forever into now, the sudden unexpected sense of the real, the flash of power and together, in your mind.” (on the Who’s “I Can See for Miles”–February, 1968)
or even to ecstasy, a near-religious euphoria:
“At this stage in its history, rock is bursting forth from restrictions placed on it in childhood, and I suppose we can say it is having a brilliant, though difficult, adolescence. It is discovering, in new ways every day, just what is really going on out here; and every new discovery is heralded as the final, unassailable truth. And perhaps (I hear it in the most recent music of the Kinks, the Who, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, Dylan) rock is just now beginning to discover that there are no unassailable truths, there is only greater and greater awareness of the universe. And of oneself.” (February, 1968)
If Williams mostly saw the good in all that, he wasn’t exactly alone. And he had the excuse–sometimes the advantage–of his extreme youth. In that sense Outlaw Blues is both a gift to the future we now occupy, and (if you choose to read between the lines), a warning that we might not be able to do more than occupy it.
I mean, these days, if you want to write something like “there must be more going on than the obvious, stereotyped stuff, or why do I like it so much?” or even “The Beatles are unshakable, which certainly contributes no end to their position as culture heroes, though it may someday detract from their standing as artists.” you aren’t going to catch on at Rolling Stone and you aren’t even going to start a new version of Crawdaddy. These days, if you want to be that direct, wear that much of your heart on your sleeve, take that much risk of looking either prescient or foolish, about the best you can do is start a blog.
That’s in effect what Williams did in the mid to late sixties.
You might call that seeing around the corner.
In a sense, his specific concerns hardly matter. Besides the usual Dylan/Beatles/Stones trifecta, he was deep into the Jefferson Airplane and the Doors (who I like) and the Byrds and the Beach Boys (or Brian Wilson anyway) who I love. But after decades of living with them all, I found every interest (like/love/appreciation) rekindled as I was reading Williams’ long-ago, fresh takes from the front line.
I also found hindsight even more useful than usual.
I don’t know how much effort Williams or his publisher put into the book’s organization, but given his famous “essay into rediscovery” take on The Byrds’ Greatest Hits, an album that, half a generation later, affected my own life as profoundly as any album can, I’m guessing the overall effects of this book’s structure were not unintentional.
Which is another way of saying that placing his long interviews with the Doors’ producer Paul Rothchild and Beach Boys’ insider David Anderle near the end was a way of achieving maximum effect.
In one sense those pieces were the hardest to read, because Williams was giving over the space normally occupied by his unique voice to voices that were quite typical. This doesn’t lead to discord. They were all phoning from the same area code. But it does shift the emphasis from writer to interviewer and the insights from the personal to something more generational.
That said, the pieces are as vital as anything else and in some ways more enlightening. I had more trouble getting through the Morrison piece because I’m not as interested in the Doors as I am in the Beach Boys. But in both instances, I knew I was getting more insight into why Jim Morrison and Brian Wilson self-destructed in ten thousand words than in anybody else’s ten thousand pages.
Because that was part of Williams’ gift too. Getting people to talk. You get a sense of both the overwhelming charisma that the most gifted rock stars (meaning rock stars who are something more than “stars”) tend to project, and the tremendous fragility of egos being pressed to literally define the world for millions of people.
Not to mention the degree of free-floating sycophancy that was bound to attach itself and suffocate just about anyone who possessed enough life force to be in that position in the first place–an atmosphere Williams, at times, comes dangerously close to aiding and abetting.
Of course, it’s easy to judge such things from this distance. We know what happened to Jim Morrison and we know what happened to Brian Wilson.
But Williams could not have been entirely surprised. After all, in the moment itself, he saw far enough ahead to write this:
“Beware the baldersnatch, my son. Beware the confusion that comes at the top, that comes from thousands of people waiting for your new album, that comes from record companies standing in line for the right to spend money on you, that comes from fourteen-page magazine articles about how great you are. Remember that you are only you, remember that your prime concern should be doing what is most important to you, but that you have a responsibility, a very real responsibility to every person other than yourself who gets involved in the achieving of your personal goals.”
Few people who covered rock and roll for a living wrote like that then.
Nobody writes like that now.
Before and after he was anything else, Paul Williams was that good old distinctively American type: The Seeker. It isn’t only rock criticism that finds such folks in short supply these days.
As before, I’ve linked to live performances, or at least interesting video comps, where possible, even if they aren’t always the best vocal presentations–there’s usually a pure studio version next door on YouTube if you just want to listen to the record. Also, as before, I’ve listed lead singers for groups and relevant harmony singers (not necessarily every singer who appeared on every record).
And, once again, this is really a smattering. Most “vocal events” in rock and roll history are deep enough and broad enough to warrant their own encyclopedias. The Byrds, Bob Dylan and the Mamas and the Papas, for instance, could each easily sustain a list of this length all by themselves.
What I’m trying to do with each segment is give the general shape of the thing from a singing perspective–including all the most important voices, who did what, a little of why it mattered and what it may have felt like in the moment, plus how it resonates through the years. I encourage any and all to comment on any significant oversights! I do put some time into these but it ain’t entirely scientific.
As a final note, for all of this great genre’s vaunted (and revolutionary) lyricism–defined by, but not limited to, the emergence of Bob Dylan as the Voice of a Generation–it was, as always, the singing which put it across. Harmony singing, for instance, though it had (thanks to the Everly Brothers) been in the rock and roll mix from almost the very beginning and had been raised to new, exciting heights by the Beach Boys and the Beatles, had never been quite so central to American music and never quite would be again.
“When You Walk In The Room”–Jackie DeShannon: Released as a B-side, it crawled to #99 on the charts in the space between John Kennedy’s assassination and the Beatles’ arrival in America, staying there for exactly one week. Not the first time the future has come creeping in the back door. This was probably intended as a “girl group” record and, frankly, it works on that level, too. But she was already on to Bob Dylan and somebody, at least, was on to jangling guitars. Her record company refused to let her do an album of Dylan covers or the actual term “folk rock” might have been coined a year and half earlier than it was. (Heck a lot of things might have had names a year or two earlier than they did if the world had been in the habit of paying just a touch more heed to whatever Jackie was up to.) Anyway, with rockabilly and soul already deep in her skin, bones and vocal chords and every hipster in L. A. in her social circle, she really was the perfect harbinger.
“Laugh, Laugh”–The Beau Brummels (Sal Valentino, lead vocal): This broke out of San Francisco in the Winter of ’64. It sort of got lost, later on, that the Summer of Love San Francisco scene-sters nearly all started out as folkies. Odd, then, that the Beau Brummels should grab the spotlight first–and with Sly Stone producing no less. Their sound was nicely stripped down, though. Folk rock before it had a name, yes, but the “rock” part was from the garage. (Alternate: “You Were On My Mind” by San Francisco’s We Five, which radiates joy.)
“Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Chimes of Freedom”–The Byrds (Roger McGuinn, lead vocals, Gene Clark and David Crosby harmony vocals): The cataclysm. Summer of ’65. Of course, “Mr. Tambourine Man” was the breakout, watershed, etc.–truly one of the most important records ever made. Dylan had been taken high on the charts as a protest poet (Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Blowing In the Wind,” Mary Travers leading) and slick-as-grease ladies’ man (P,P&M’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” Noel Paul Stookey leading and laying it on even thicker than Dylan himself, which was maybe harder than anybody thought at the time). Now, he went to the very top–not as those or any of the multitude of other, occasionally dubious. things he was–but as magic realist. All well and good. But the purely vocal essence of both the Byrds and the larger cosmos they had latched onto, was perhaps better defined by “Chimes of Freedom,” which was not only more imaginatively arranged and deeply felt, but more magical and realist and Dylanesque as well. (Alternate: Their version of DeShannon’s “Don’t Doubt Yourself Babe,” also from their monumental first album, which, among other things, brought Bo Diddley’s beat into the mix.)
“Like a Rolling Stone”–Bob Dylan: Speaking of cataclysms. Greil Marcus wrote a good book about this one and I don’t think I really have anything to add except to say that it’s worth writing a book about.
“The Sound of Silence”–Simon and Garfunkel (Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, shared lead vocals): (Also known as “The Sounds of Silence.” I’m using Simon’s preference.) Recorded a bit earlier, when folk harmony duos were all the rage on the folk scene and nowhere else. Even the success of British variants like Peter and Gordon in the wake of the Beatles success couldn’t get the concept off the ground in Middle America. But the duo (which had broken up by the summer of 65) had been signed to Columbia and, after the Byrds and Dylan smashed out, producer Tom Wilson decided to see how the folkies would sound with electric guitars and an echo chamber. Turned out it sounded like a natural #1. The boom was on. Thrown back together by the record’s unlikely ride up the charts, Paul and Artie sounded like they could finish each other’s heartbeats. They’ve been fighting ever since.
“Do You Believe In Magic”–The Lovin’ Spoonful (John Sebastian, lead vocal): Here, the “magic” was rock and roll, which was a pretty heady admission for any folkie as deep-dyed as John Sebastian–I mean, the man played an autoharp. Probably the best example, among an army of such, of a singer–and a band–forced out of their collective comfort zone by the times. They retreated soon enough, but while the walls were down they went a lot further than anybody could have guessed in the days before Bob Dylan and Jackie DeShannon came along. Never further than this, their brightest of many shining moments.
“It Ain’t Me Babe”–The Turtles (Howard Kaylan, lead vocal): A heartbeat earlier, they were the Crossfires and you know a concept is breaking big when it catches up the local surf band and turns them into singing folkies. And you also know the local surf band isn’t just any old band–that they might have a run of hits in them–when they make it sound this good.
“I Got You Babe”–Sonny and Cher: What was it George Melly said? Revolt into style? Something like that. (Alternate: “Summer Rain” by Johnny Rivers, which sounds even better but lacks the essence of a Zeitgeist that’s bound to occur whenever Cher is involved in either the revolt or the style. NOTE: It could be my imagination, but judging by the chilly audience reception in the otherwise very charming Top of the Pops clip I linked, the Brits may really have seen folk rock as a very specific threat to the Pop hegemony the Beatles had established on an almost gut-level. In which case, they were right. Or maybe Sonny had ticked somebody off. Yeah, that could be it.)
“Eve of Destruction”–Barry McGuire: Go tell it on the mountain again. Tell everybody an earthquake is coming.
“California Dreaming”–The Mamas and the Papas (Denny Doherty, lead vocal; Cass Elliot, John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, harmony vocals): The greatest pure vocal group in folk rock and probably in all of rock and roll, with two fantastic leads (one male, one female) and, because of the unrivaled gender balance, so many ways to approach harmony that my lifetime of listening has never stopped yielding surprises. And their credentials were fully established before they escaped the first line of their first record. (Incidentally, I heard a right wing talk show host play this coming out of a commercial break just the other day. He wanted to make some point about the uselessness of hippies–yes they still do that. He thought this was the song to do it with. Believe me, it was a mistake.)
“Go Where You Wanna Go”–The Mamas and the Papas: Lead? Harmony? Who knows. The dynamics are literally head-spinning. The lyric is a great shout of freedom, something you might have expected from the early Beatles. The vocal arrangement, which might be the tightest in the history of the universe, is also so expansive that it actually amounts to a shout of maniacal laughter directly in the face of any and all listeners (let alone any rival singers) who try to keep all the way up. All that without being too tricky for its own good. Given what happened–to them and the world–it winds up in a rather disorienting place. Every time it starts, I think it’s bound to end happily and every time it ends I can’t believe I got fooled again. Can’t get more folk or rock than that. (By way of comparison, the Fifth Dimension, who have a claim on being one of the dozen or so greatest vocal groups of the rock and roll era themselves, covered this, had a hit with it, and sounded like somebody had stranded them in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.)
“Sloop John B”–The Beach Boys (Brian Wilson and Mike Love, lead vocals, Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, harmony vocals): Having had no small amount of influence on the scene themselves, it figured they’d make at least onr classic of the form. That it would be an actual folk song–and from the West Indies at that–was maybe not so obvious. Nor was the fact that they would improve the concept so dramatically.
“For What It’s Worth”–(Stephen Stills, lead vocal, Richie Furay and Dewey Martin, harmony vocals): Stills looked out the window (or something) and saw some kids being hassled over protesting the closing of a night club (or something). Wrote this song, waxed his greatest vocal by far, and proved a point: All politics is local (or something).
“Different Drum”–The Stone Poneys (Linda Ronstadt, lead vocal): Not my favorite Ronstadt by a long shot, but a necessary deep breath in the wake of “Go Where You Wanna Go,” and a look ahead to some essential elements of California Rock (and, actually, pretty darn great for all that).
“Too Much of Nothing”–Peter, Paul and Mary (Mary Travers, lead vocal, Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey, harmony vocals: They had put Bob Dylan on the charts, and done it so far ahead of anybody else that it is hardly a given he would have gotten there at all if they hadn’t made him–and management–a bucket-load of money practically right out of the box. (Laugh if you want, but it never happened for Woody Guthrie and the times hadn’t changed all that much.) That said, there wasn’t much “rock” in their early sound. They smoked this, though, and, on the live version I linked, you can hear (and even see, frankly) Stookey’s roots in doo-wop.
“She Belongs to Me”–Rick Nelson: A chance for a rocker–and a weary teen idol–to pause, take his time, find his natural rhythm, maybe grow up. (Alternate: Bobby Darin’s “If I Were a Carpenter,” and ditto.)
“Abraham, Martin and John” and “Sonny Boy” and “Daddy Rollin”–Dion: There had to be one definitive topical record in a genre called folk rock. And there had to be one definitive tribute to the blues in a genre called folk rock. And there had to be one definitive song about drug addiction in a genre that was so deeply associated with the radicalizing aspects of the sixties. Happened that the same guy sang all three–in 1968, when all that stuff pretty much had to happen. Not saying that guy had to be a New York doo-wopper recovering from his own drug addiction of course. But it worked out that way. (Sorry, I couldn’t find a link to “Sonny Boy.”)
“Meet On the Ledge”–Fairport Convention (Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny, dueling lead vocals): The Beatles and the Stones were hardly immune to folk rock and its key practitioners were hardly immune to them. But the Fabs really were a tad slick and the Stones really were a bit louche. That’s a lot of what made them great, mind you, but for a genuine British variant of “folk” and “rock,” I think this dove much deeper into the connection than, say, “Yesterday,” or “Ruby Tuesday.” (Alternate, looking forward: Robert Plant and Denny dueling on “The Battle of Evermore” on Led Zeppelin IV–an album that represents but one of the interesting directions this concept took in the seventies. Alternate, looking back: Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” which I wrote about in the British Invasion portion of the program linked above.)
“Freedom”–Richie Havens: Now there had to be something great in the form that would become attached at the hip to Woodstock. Without that, the cosmos really would have gone all out of whack–God might no longer recognize us at all. And why shouldn’t it be by the dude who owned the coffee-house circuit in the days when the idea of moving so many masses was just so many gleams in so many folk-singer’s eyes? Actually, why would it be by anybody else?
“Get Together”–The Youngbloods (Jessie Colin Young, lead vocal, Jerry Corbit, harmony vocal): A song so many people had taken a shot at that, by 1969, when this became a hit, it must have seemed next to impossible that anybody would ever define it. Turned out somebody already had, all the way back in 1967, when they recorded it. Very folk, that. And very rock and roll. (The link is to a medley, of which “Get Together” is only a small piece…but it’s too perfect a time capsule to pass up. Where else can you find Milton Berle asking for a “warm recession?”)
“Put a Little Love In Your Heart”–Jackie Deshannon: An apotheosis from the founding mother–understatement and urgency tugging on each other’s sleeves. Perhaps the finest purely vocal evocation of the better world waiting that, of course, never arrived.
“We Can Be Together”–Jefferson Airplane (Grace Slick and Marty Balin, shared lead vocals, Paul Kantner, harmony vocal): Had to get some genuinely radical politics in there somewhere. The difference, if you will, between waiting for a better world and demanding it. Not that it ended up making much difference, but it’s nice to recall that somebody–anybody, however callow–once actually tried.
“Ohio”–Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (Neil Young, lead vocal, David Crosby, harmony vocal, Graham Nash and Stephen Stills, additional harmony vocals): The dirge of history and tragedy and violence that was lying under the folk part of folk rock all along (not to speak of the righteous anger), finally boiling all the way to the surface, with a guitar line that always makes it seem impossible any singer can live up to it, right up until Neil Young opens his mouth.
“Every Picture Tells a Story” and “Maggie May”–Rod Stewart (Maggie Bell and Long John Baldry, harmony vocals on “Every Picture Tells a Story”): Well, like I said, the concept went in interesting directions, including straight back to the blues. I suspect the narratives of these two songs are the sort of story the Coen Brothers were really trying to tell in their recent homage to the early sixties folk scene Inside Llewyn Davis (a scene which Rod Stewart, of course, had nothing to do with but it turned out that a wannabe soccer hooligan diverted by his talent into lasting fame and fortune knew more about it than all their research could discover). Not too surprisingly, they lacked the nerve. Then again, their considerable skill was bound to be squandered. No amount of mere nerve would have let them tell these tales anywhere near as well.
“Lean On Me”–Bill Withers: Back to the healing basics, sans any trace of the old utopianism. And actually a purer example of this style by now so fully incorporated it could go almost anywhere than, say, “Heart of Gold” or “Horse With No Name.” And I’m pretty sure this was the only folk rock record to ever hit #1 on the R&B charts, which it reached the week after the Watergate break-in and initial arrests sent an early sign that the reactionary chill which always follows a revolution (no matter the outcome) and was bound to leave us in need of a little basic healing, had begun in earnest.
“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”–Bob Dylan: World weary theme from a Sam Peckinpah movie. Hard to think of a better way to close down the concept than that.
First some actual history (which you’ll need, in order to comprehend just how little sense is contained in some of the statements posted immediately thereafter):
Chart action for Fleetwood Mac’s first seven American singles after Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined the band in 1975:
Song Entered chart Peak Pos (Billboard Hot 100)
From Fleetwood Mac:
Over My Head
(Christine McVie) 11/8/75 #20 (14 weeks on the Chart)
(Stevie Nicks) 3/6/76 #11 (18 weeks)
Say You Love Me
(Christine McVie) 7/4/76 #11 (19 weeks)
Go Your Own Way
(Lindsey Buckingham) 1/8/77 #10 (15 weeks)
(Stevie Nicks) 4/16/77 #1 (19 weeks)
(C. McVie/Buckingham) 7/9/77 #3 (18 weeks)
You Make Loving Fun
(Christine McVie) 10/15/77 #9 (14 weeks)
And now, bearing all that in mind, a bit of commentary:
“The ‘Fleetwood Mac’ herein is the great group led by Peter Green, not the Californian mob with Stevie Nicks.”
(Source: Elvis Costello, “Costello’s 500: Elvis Costello picks the 500 Greatest Albums Ever”, Vanity Fair, November, 2000)
“Released in 1977, Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Go Your Own Way’ was the initial single from Rumours, which eventually sold more than twelve million copies. As the first shot by the group since their quadruple-platinum Fleetwood Mac, ‘Go Your Own Way’ should have been an automatic smash, no matter what it sounded like, but it surfaced a few times and then vanished, quickly replaced by ‘Dreams,’ a soft ballad, which sailed easily to number one. ‘Go Your Own Way’ was rough, harsh, hard to follow. From its opening notes it was a maelstrom, excitement and nothing else. It was an assault, hammering, the singer moaning and threatening, pleading and damning; it didn’t let up for a second.
“Coming two thirds of the way through the performance, the requisite instrumental break should have provided a rest: instead it raised the stakes. When Lindsey Buckingham dropped his words for a guitar solo–a shattered, severed solo almost drowning in a dozen more overdubbed guitar parts, the off-beat rhythm chasing his lead, then overtaking him, then seeming to wait for him to catch up, which he never quite did–the song began all over again. Ten years later, I flinch every time it comes on the radio, knowing what’s coming, knowing that no matter how completely I can predict what’s going to happen, I won’t be able to catch up: the instrumental passage supersedes not only the singing that precedes it, but the ability of memory to enclose it. And the record got its due: ‘Dreams’ hasn’t been on the air since it dropped from the charts, while ‘Go Your Own Way’ has never been off the air.”
Greil Marcus (Source: “Music,” Artforum, March 1987. Reprinted in Ranters & Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music, 1977-92, 1994)
MJB (Mary J. Blige): That is amazing. That song is so simple but very strong, like “Thunder only happens when it’s raining/Players only love you when they’re playing.” That line [from “Dreams”]is so amazing.
SN (Stevie Nicks): Isn’t it weird how today some people we know [in the music business] are referred to as ‘total players’? And that’s really what I was saying when I wrote that in 1976. ‘Players only love you when they’re playing,’ which means as a woman in rock, many of the different affairs and relationships I had were built around the music and being on tour. And then, when the music was over, the relationships were over.
MJB: I felt that. I can hear that. I don’t think that kind of stuff ever changes, you just get wiser or dumber about it.
(Source: Stevie Nicks interviewing Mary J. Blige, Interview Magazine, Feb. 2008)
“Lindsey had an amazing way of taking my songs and making them wonderful–when he was happy with me.”
“Whatever Stevie’s music was, somehow I was this soul mate, that just knew exactly what to do with it. And that never went away, it just became a little bittersweet, in terms of WANTING to do it. There were times when I had the urge not to want to help her.”
“‘Dreams’ was hopeful. You know, it saw the breakup coming but it was hopeful that we would be okay, unlike ‘Go Your Own Way,’ which was not hopeful that we would be okay, you know? That was the thing that Lindsey and I argued about a lot, was that I try to be somewhat optimistic. In my songs, somewhere, you know, to pull out some kind of ray of light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t make up stories. They have to be real.”
“The songs that he wrote about me were horrifying. You know ‘Go Your Own Way’ is one way to say…the really worst thing you know?….You know, ‘shacking up is all you want to do,’ which was not true! And I had to listen to him sing it on stage every night and he’d look at me when he’d say it and I would just be going, ‘You know, don’t look at me when you say that!’ that tender love song that you wrote for me, you know…How mean.”
(Source: Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood Mac documentary footage, circa 1990’s)
“Tolerable in a group that was vying for a Dorian Gray medallion by decade’s end, she proved a menace solo, equally unhealthy as role model and sex object.”
“not a diva–a transgendered arena-rock god in all his/her grand self-regard”
(Source: Noted feminist Robert Christgau’s entire commentary on Stevie Nicks’ solo career, Christgau’s Consumer Guide–first quote from 1980’s edition, 2nd quote from 1990’s review of Time Space: The Best of Stevie Nicks)
“‘Women, shit!’ the tall convict said.”
(Source: William Faulkner, final line of If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem–aka, The Wild Palms, 1939)
And now, an attempt to wrest some sort of meaning from this tangle:
Stevie Nicks stomped through the California Rock scene in the seventies the way Michelle Phillips had done in the sixties: taking scalps, sampling the moment’s hip drugs, providing a certain aura of quintessence. That much they had in common.
There were some differences.
Michelle Phillips was a good harmony singer who needed confidence lessons from Mama Cass out front no matter how many A-list movie stars bowed down at her feet behind closed doors. Beyond that–and most crucially–she clearly knew her place.
Stevie Nicks was a strong writer, a mesmerizing, cantankerous front woman, and one of the greatest singers of the rock era. Beyond that–and most crucially–she clearly knew it wasn’t her place to bow down to anybody.
The quotes above are representive, but, even without them, there would be no need to guess which one drove the crit-illuminati stone cold crazy.
That might seem a little strong ,but when the lady in question has people pretending (that’s the kindest word I can think of to describe someone claiming the radio has ever stopped playing “Dreams”) that your biggest hit left the air for good when it “dropped from the charts,” to make way, ultimately, for the most famous of the “horrifying” songs your ex wrote about you, then, well, “stone cold crazy” seems just about right.
And it seems just about right even before one gets to such enlightened fare as “transgendered arena rock god” (written at just about the last moment when a Liberal-Playing-at-Radical like Christgau could use “transgendered” as an insult before the next round of re-education set in–there will, of course, never be a moment when the wrong sort of woman can’t be described as a “menace” by the cramped souls in the cheap seats or when “unhealthy…sex object” isn’t code for either cooties or VD). At that point, I guess she should just be grateful for small favors: the occasional backhanded compliment–the term “guilty pleasure” comes up a lot–and whatever relief she can manage to feel that we don’t still dip witches in the village pond and hang ’em if they don’t drown.
For the record, Fleetwood Mac went from being a very good band to an important one the moment Stevie Nicks (and, yes, Lindsey Buckingham) joined and went from being an important band to a very good one the moment she (not Buckingham) decided to focus most of her energy on one of the very few major solo careers any singer who got famous in a rock band has ever managed (and, near as I can tell, the only one anyone has ever managed on a similar scale without ever really leaving their original band).
To steal a phrase from Reggie Jackson, another misunderstood seventies-era visionary, in Fleetwood Mac’s truly epic period, Stevie Nicks was the straw that stirred the drink and everybody, including the other members of the band, pretty well knew it.
That does not mean she was musically more important than the others. That’s a totally different call. It would, for instance, be hard to be more important than Lindsey Buckingham himself, who, as an ace singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer, was an extremely rare quadruple threat. And nobody ever said Christine McVie was anything but a great singer, or that Mick Fleetwood and John McVie were anything but an awesome rhythm section. I mean, one measure of just how great Fleetwood Mac was at that point was that Stevie Nicks didn’t completely dominate it.
But she was the combustible element. And if you listen to the albums the band made in the five years before she showed up–or even the scorching guitar blues records made by the original lineup Elvis Costello loves so much in the years before that–what you hear, always, is a real good band that was very much in need of some combustion.
How she managed this was some blend of “bleeding obvious” (there was the talent, the drop-dead looks, the tendency to actually dress like a witch, or at least like nobody else) and “who the hell knows?” (whatever was inside her that drew great, angry songs like “Go Your Own Way” out of Buckingham, whose real passions otherwise were mostly for techno wizardry, or that lifted Christine McVie out of her previously–and subsequently–unbreachable comfort zone, or that made Mick Fleetwood figure he had to get in the scalp line himself at least once, and so on and so forth).
Whatever her “it” factor finally was, the public nearly always responded to it just a little bit more than it responded to the rest of the group.
The extent to which Buckingham–or the record company, or somebody–would go to counter this effect seems to have been considerable. “Landslide” and “Gold Dust Woman” were natural singles from their respective era-defining albums that went unreleased–and got picked up by the radio and played for the next forty years anyway. “Silver Springs” was left off of Rumours (where it would have been one of the strongest tracks on one of the greatest albums ever made) for “time and length” reasons that have always sounded frankly ridiculous. Released as the flip of–get this–“Go Your Own Way,” it became arguably the most famous B-side to come out after the 1960’s (when flip-hits were still pretty common) and has constantly bobbed to the surface on various re-releases ever since. (And it’s another measure of how great Fleetwood Mac was that they could leave a track as strong as “Silver Springs” off an album that was following a jillion-seller without knocking a hole in the boat.)
The upshot of all of that and more was that every attempt to rig the game in the alpha-male’s favor effectively backfired.
Partly this was just due to the quality of Nicks’ voice. She was, without much doubt, the most prominent and gifted heir of Brenda Lee-style husk and Lee had been the most popular female vocalist of the sixties. And being gorgeous never hurts commercially. Hard to hide all that.
But I think those qualities still come a long way behind the main factor–the real reason I suspect Nicks has been inordinately popular among the women vocalists who have come after and seems to strike an especially strong chord with hip-hop era black women.
To put it as succinctly as I know how: Stevie talked back.
Not only that, she talked back in a direct and forceful way that hadn’t happened quite so forcefully and directly before in rock or pretty much anywhere else. She talked back–directly–to a man who was somewhat obsessed with publicly–and directly–cutting her down. And who very pointedly wasn’t going to make up with her in the last reel. Whatever the realities of her relationship with Buckingham during Fleetwood Mac’s transcendent period, whoever was really to blame for what, that was the way the dynamic played out in public.
“Go Your Own Way” hit the radio and the record bins and, despite Greil Marcus’ delusional claim otherwise, was in fact a very big hit. A very big hit which was a straightforward “you-know-she’s-really-a-whore/slut-don’t-you?” attack on the woman singing harmony and standing next to him on stage every night–a harmony and a stage presence, incidentally, that won him a degree of fame he, for all his talent, almost certainly never could have achieved without her.
That was strange enough by itself–at least as weird as any dynamic that had ever existed in the Mamas and the Papas or the Jefferson Airplane or Abba.
But Grace Slick tended to write and sing more memorably about the times than her feelings and the other women in those groups didn’t write at all, so it meant something different when you could flip the 45 of “Go Your Own Way” and listen to “Silver Springs” not as a throwaway, but as an equally great record that literally told the other side of the story.
And if anybody wanted to wait four months until “Go Your Own Way” dropped off the charts (after performing right in line with the band’s previous singles), then they could hear “Dreams” following hard after–“Packing up, shacking up’s all you want to do,” chased onto the airwaves by, “Now here you go again, you say you want your freedom, well who am I to keep you down?”
That sort of thing might (or might not) seem fairly mundane now, a generation and a half after riot girl power erupted (in the underground at least). But it wasn’t mundane then. If you wanted to hear some sort of female empowerment in the mid-seventies Top 40, you mostly would be settling for songs about hanging in there like “I Will Survive.” Great record, no doubt–and necessary–but it wasn’t exactly moving the ball forward.
That’s where Stevie Nicks came in.
Not only did she offer in-time responses to age-old attacks on “wanton” women, but these were responses that rang out like gentle curses. The woman who could rock as hard as anybody alive tended to whisper when, without turning around, she was–magically if you will–parrying the knives aimed at her back.
So in a sense, for all that she accomplished after–a solo career that produced another solid handful of radio staples (and not a few magnificent performances–see below), a decade or more as rock’s go-to harmony session singer (which made her as much a descendant of Darlene Love and Merry Clayton as of Brenda Lee), a career as a “role model” that worked out just fine no matter how many rock critics followed Lindsey Buckingham’s lead–her place in the pantheon was secure the minute “Dreams”–that “soft ballad” that worked as a knowing, inescapable psychic knee in the groin of the sexual element of male privilege that, no matter how far we think “civilization” has come, is still the foundation stone upon which all the other privileges are built–started up the charts.
That makes “Dreams” a pretty big deal even now. Because if that was all there was to Stevie Nicks, it would be enough. If there were no cataclysmic live version of “Edge of Seventeen,” no glorious throwaways like her Buddy Holly and Ricky Nelson covers, no definitive take on “Silent Night,” no bridge to transcendence on the version of “The Insider” that appears on Tom Petty’s 30th Anniversary Concert DVD, no three and half additional decades of popping up from the ether every few years and reminding us who she really is, there would still be “Dreams,” the song that made the crit-illuminati start lying their collective asses off the moment it appeared and has never stopped annoying them since.
Of course it was inevitable (more or less) that all that other stuff would exist–once the impulses that created “Dreams” did. There was no way anyone as driven and gifted as Nicks was going to remain in the shadows, or go back to them once she had fully emerged–and frankly she had already emerged before “Dreams” was a record. Probably even before it was an idea. I’m not even sure it’s her signature record. Plenty would vote for “Rhiannon” or “Landslide,” and I wouldn’t say they were wrong.
But “Dreams” was the no-going-back point. The way into the future.
Not the first time a woman stood toe to toe with men generally. That had happened plenty–even in rock.
Just the first time a woman stood toe-to-toe with the particular man who was saying particular things about her.
In the same band.
Or, as Elvis Costello would have it (and I’m sure the fact that he was never able to stay on the radio himself had nothing to do with his failure to comprehend all this), in a “Californian mob,” which, of course, happened to be three-fifth’s English.
Goodness knows we should be used to the six thousand degrees of separation from reality that the boys with the thinking caps and the typewriter minds practice by now, let alone the sort of rock musician who lives to impress them.
But I’m pausing here, this particular month, to celebrate the woman who made the idea that we should accept it utterly obsolete the minute she showed up.
(NOTE: Steven Rubio has rightly pointed out in comments that Brenda Lee being the most popular female vocalist of the 1960s is a contestable statement. I just want to clarify that I was referencing Joel Whitburn’s Billboard research, specifically Top Pop Singles: 1955-1999, which places Brenda third overall for the decade behind the Beatles and Elvis and, of course, first among female vocalists. As I’ve explained in a number of my Elvis posts, “charts” are not definitive barometers of “popularity.” But they are the only useful objective public evidence that exists. Apologies for the short-hand and thanks to Steven for pointing out the need for a clarification.)
That’s the definition I gave rock and roll here (discussing a song which, just oh-by-the-way, I consider more “adult” than any broached below).
A few posts back I also mentioned Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout’s praise of Donald Fagen’s recent solo album as an example of another definition of rock and roll–children’s music very occasionally redeemed by a fellow collegian.
I meant my own comment somewhat sardonically but Teachout has, sadly, doubled down in an article titled “How to Be an Aging Rocker,” which manages to be a sort of perfect summation of certain falsehoods that were born in rock’s early dawn and have been repeated with such numbing regularity–by friends and enemies alike–that they have long since achieved the force of government sponsored propaganda.
By all means read the whole thing, but the basic argument is distilled in the following sentence:
“One of the reasons why so much first- and second-generation rock n’ roll has aged so badly is that most of it was created by young people for consumption by even younger people.”
Oh, my. Here we go again.
First, let me reiterate that I’m not down on Teachout, Fagen or Steely Dan, all of whom I admire.
But goodness, talk about pulling out all the usual stops:
Aren’t you embarrassed by that stuff you listened to when you were young?
Did you know that Steely Dan used to employ honest-to-God JAZZ musicians who could really play on their albums?
Have you noticed that the Rolling Stones really suck these days?
Mind you, Terry was a serious young man. He assures us his teenage musical diet was filled with Crosby, Still & Nash and the Jefferson Airplane. I’m guessing if he had gone in for the Four Seasons and the Beach Boys (the way I did, a decade later, when it was really uncool, though not nearly as uncool as my affection for the likes of John Denver and Olivia Newton-John!), he would probably have shot himself by now.
Which would be a real shame, because when Teachout is blogging, i.e., writing in a genuinely personal way, he’s quite astute and charming.
When he’s writing for hire, alas, he is prone to bouts of moral and mental paralysis.
Thus are dubious thought processes that happen to coincide with the prevailing interests of even more dubious establishmentarianism sustained, generation by generation.
So the article–couched in the false assumption that, compared to other art forms, “rock n’ roll” has aged badly–leaps from one zone-of-safety-falsehood-disguised-as-hard-risk-taking-truth to another.
All the usual methods are deployed:
There’s the straw-man argument. To which, what can I say?
Yes, the Rolling Stones really do suck and have for a long time. Of course, band inspiration is notoriously hard to sustain–much harder than individual craft and/or genius. So why not compare Fagen to Neil Young or Van Morrison or Bruce Springsteen or late-period Bob Dylan, to name only the most obvious candidates? Maybe because, making the argument that they have spent decades making specious, “immature” music is quite a bit harder to sustain (even if, like Fagen, they may not have quite sustained the brilliance of youth)?
Well, yes, that could be it. Maybe. Or probably. Or certainly.
(That lays aside of course the argument that the Rolling Stones earned the right to suck because they once reached and sustained heights Steely Dan never even aspired to, heights far beyond mere “maturity.”…I’m laying it aside because I think that’s another argument.)
As for a statement like “Unlike the bluntly bluesy garage-band sound of the Stones, Mr. Fagen’s music is a rich-textured, harmonically oblique amalgam of rock, jazz and soul. It is, in a word, music for grown-ups.”
Even if, by chance you don’t think say “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin'” is a better “amalgam” of rock, jazz and soul, than anything Fagen has ever managed (and even if, by chance you find the attachment of the word “soul” to Fagen’s music a bit odd), you might want to consider another question or two.
Like whether the Nashville cats who played on “Heartbreak Hotel” way back when would have had any trouble keeping up with a Steely Dan session? Or whether the “country” lyricists of such immature music–or the Memphis hillbilly who turned a hot-musical-trend into a full blown cultural revolution by his manner of presenting them–had trouble comprehending Dan-style irony?
You know, way back when.
And if you know the answers to those questions (respectively, “no” and “no”)–as Teachout and oh, so many others doubtless would if they were allowed to maintain the habit of thinking for themselves all of the time instead of just some of the time–then you also know whether it’s the rock and rollers who should be embarrassed by their absence of “maturity.”
(Incidentally, if immaturity there must be, let it be as below…Sure wish we had torn down those walls. And let us also remind ourselves that somewhat different ideas of where that whole notion of an “amalgam of rock, jazz and soul” actually came from do still exist:)