[NOTE: This is the second in my series of Track-By-Track appreciations of my twenty favorite vocal albums of the twentieth century.]
Howlin’ Wolf (born Chester Arthur Burnett) was the roughest of the post-war blues singers, the one closest in sound and spirit to prewar bluesmen like Texas’s Blind Willie Johnson and especially Wolf’s mentor the Delta’s own Charley Patton.
If he sounds slightly more accessible to modern ears, it’s likely due to better recording circumstances that improved on the primitive technology of the 1920s. Like all blues singers worth their salt, he wanted to be successful, to sell records, to escape plantation life. Unlike most–especially those who were incapable of the compromises that open most doors in the record business, the radio world, Las Vegas (whether someone, even the Wolf, is unwilling to make such compromises is another, perhaps unknowable story)–he was successful. Perhaps not by pop star standards, but he was able to make a living doing what he wanted to do.
For me, finding the Wolf among the blues singers was like finding Louis Armstrong or Elvis or Al Green or Patty Loveless elsewhere.
Aha, I thought. This is the one.
Where I found him was here, on the second collection of his 50s/early 60s singles put out by Chess records.
I was led to The Rockin’ Chair Album by the conventional wisdom which held that it represented him at his peak.
For once, the conventional wisdom was not just blowing smoke up my skirt.
“Shake for Me”–A lot of singers have expressed something along the lines of “shake it for me.” No one else made it sound like lives depended on it…his and hers.
The Red Rooster”–The Little Red Rooster, on the other hand, has all the time in the world. It’s not exactly as if it was given to him, it’s that he’s taking it anyway. Just try and stop him. The Wolf will laugh at you. Speed up the rooster? The one who’s too lazy to crow for day? Good luck with that.
“You’ll Be Mine”–An unholy noise, the vocal equivalent of a pile-driver. And yet, there’s a delicacy of feeling, a nuance of romanticism that belies the mighty yowl. In this reading, You’ll be mi-i-i-i-i-ine!, is equal parts joy of expectation, fear of loss, and something not quite definable. Terror of what he’ll do if it turns out she won’t be his perhaps? A lifetime of listening hasn’t yielded the answers. I wonder if I’ll be allowed to ponder it in the next life?
“Who’s Been Talkin'”–My favorite Wolf record, the very sound the Rolling Stones spent their early years chasing. The band may have even gotten there, and there would come a time when Mick Jagger had made enough deals with Lucifer to approximate Wolf’s capacity for excising everything inessential from a vocal. What he could never match–few could–was the ease available to a singer who dealt in souls himself. Ask me what My baby bought the ticket, long as my right arm means and I can’t tell you in words. But, in the place where words don’t count, I know exactly what it means.
“Wang Dang Doodle”–Like most of the songs on this album, this was written by Willie Dixon. Unlike most of Willie Dixon’s songs, here and elsewhere, this one is channeling “Young Goodman Brown.” Chester Burnett does Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Hawthorne descended from the Salem Witch Trial judge who never repented. Ah yes, it all makes sense now, this America!
“Little Baby”–Wolf turns ghost or is it stalker? He promises to follow the girl to church or jail. He swears he won’t let anything keep him from holding the money she wins at wages or playing the ponies. You go, and I’ll come with you, little baby. So much for the light-hearted side.
“Spoonful”–Now you flip the record over and it gets deep. Deep enough to make the wicked guitar–wicked even for a Wolf record, maybe the very wickedest–take second place.
“Going Down Slow”–This is the one where he sings about having things kings and queens ain’t never had. Anybody else would be bragging, including the richest rock stars, especially the ones who settled for knighthoods. Silly buggers. They ain’t the Wolf. He ain’t bragging. Just telling it like it is.
“Down in the Bottom”–This is the one where he sings If you see me runnin’ you know my life’s at stake. What’s remarkable about the way he sings it–what turns it inside out and lands it on its head, and yours–is it sounds almost matter of fact. And it’s the “almost” that puts the smell of fear and danger in the air. Comic fear, sure. Comic danger. But the kind that whispers: Next time, you won’t be so lucky!
“Back Door Man”–The men don’t know, but the little girls understand. Anything else you need to know?
“Howlin’ for My Baby”–This is the one where he takes a couple of minutes off to provide a prototype for a side of Otis Redding that never quite came out of Otis himself. If it had, he would have wasted Janis, Jimi, and the Who at Monterey. For the Wolf? A day at the office. Hey ya’ll, I think I just invented the future again. Make sure Mr. Chess gets my check now.
“Tell Me”–Trouble shows up at Wolf’s door….to tell him his baby is gone. He promises to forget in a voice that says he won’t. Oh, goodbye. Goodbye baby got to go. Trouble keeps knocking all the way through the fade. It knocks still. Wolf promises it will knock forever, whether he gets paid or not.
Next up: Bobby “Blue” Bland Two Steps From the Blues. (My complete review from 2012: “By which he means “not even two inches.” Should be fun!)
Dick Dale, who passed away last Saturday, was known as The King of the Surf Guitar. That was a title nobody even bothered to contest, but he was also its inventor, one of those crazy Americans we used to produce now and again and produce no more. His style was a combination of ocean roar and eastern mysticism wedded to a thirst for working with guitar manufacturers (especially Fender) who were willing to help him create an instrument that would capture the sounds in his head.
The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and a thousand one-offs from the likes of the Surfaris or the Trashmen are among the more obvious legions unthinkable without him, but there are significant chunks of Hendrix, metal, and punk that would go missing as well if he had never existed–what became known as shredding was his signature as far back as the early sixties.
Why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame never got around to so much as nominating him while he was alive is mind-blowing even by that august institution’s bizarre standards.
Doesn’t really matter, though. Dick Dale’s music is like the surf he, almost alone among the musicians associated, by technique or marketing, with the sounds and visions he created, loved and lived for.
I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You(1967)
Aretha deserved every encomium she’s received, alive or dead.
But I found it curious, in the wake of her recent passing that I didn’t read much that really tried to place her in time–it was as though she was always there, or bound to be there. Her simultaneous arrivals at Atlantic Records, the altar of Artistic Genius, and the apex of Soul were noted but only as signposts along some inevitable road.
There was nothing “inevitable” about it.
When Jerry Wexler took his latest signing down to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in the first weeks of 1967, hoping to catch some of what Percy Sledge had laid down there a year earlier, he had already pronounced that he was going to “let Aretha be Aretha.”
A fine sentiment, but it was no-wise clear, to him or anyone else, what that even meant.
Aretha had been a gospel prodigy, then a semi-successful purveyor of supper club pop, gaining a reputation as a singer’s singer while releasing nine modest sellers at Columbia records in the first half of the sixties.
The record on how committed she was to making it as a pop singer is mixed–my guess is Aretha would have been more than a little satisfied if those records had sold well enough to make her the new Sarah Vaughn.
But there was a world beyond her (or anyone’s) ambition, and the world of 1967 was roiling with social and political cross-currents that left a lot of people wondering if the center would hold.
In the year of there’s something happening hear what it is ain’t exactly clear, and Janis, Jimi and the Who torching (literally and figuratively) the stage at the Monterey Pop festival (Rock and Roll America’s first serious turn toward paganism, coming soon to a theater near you!), not to mention relentless bad (or anyway nervous) news from Viet Nam, the inner city, the college campus, I Never Loved a Man was a strange sound indeed.
When the white boy critics who still make up the vast bulk of the crit-illuminati write and speak of Gospel, they have a habit of setting if off from the world, as though it were some form of exotica, like third-world cuisine or the day they discovered the Kama Sutra.
One more way Black America is both eminently exploitable and not-quite-real.
Dollars-to-doughnuts not one of them is capable of holding the meaning of “gospel” (or Gospel) in his head for more than five seconds.
Adding a few actual black people (or women) to the mix has not altered this dynamic in the least.
They’re all still proudest of their atheism (i.e., their distance from belief).
I Never Loved a Man is, among many other things, the last shout of the gospel-based Civil Rights Movement. (By 1967, the old, non-violent, New Testament coalition was already strained at the seams by the New Militancy. Whether Martin Luther King could have held it together is an open question. Making sure it stayed open long enough to become a faded, not-quite-real, memory was the biggest reason so many people who had means, motive and opportunity wanted him dead.)
That’s appropriate enough. Gospel means the same whether it’s lower or upper case.
It means Christian revelation.
Every day of the week, including Saturday night.
Since it entered History, it’s been the source of every move towards liberation History offers.
Same in 1967 as it ever was.
The preacher’s daughter knew. By 1967, she already had a lifetime of experience, in and out of the church.
“Respect”–Aretha “stole” Otis Redding’s song (his word, not mine) by taking the sound straight back to church and thereby lifting the lyric from the personal to the universal. If you listen deep enough you’ll hear why the Gospel message spread like wildfire through the ancient world from slave’s mouth to mistress’s ear. In the eyes of the new god, every man was suddenly a king, every woman suddenly a queen. Maybe the message had been around before. If so, it had failed to convince. No longer. R-e-s-p-e-c-t. Find out what it means to me in other words. And that’s not even counting the part about not wanting all your money.
“Drown in My Own Tears”–Sunday morning piano backing a confessional vocal devoted to worldly abandonment. You get it reverend.*
“I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”–Sex presented as the thing Jesus most needs to save you from. The question stays in the air for the length of the song: Can He? Can even He? A decade later, singing “Belle,” Al Green answered in the affirmative. Aretha left it open-ended. Neither approach can ever wear out, because it’s an (if not “the”) eternal question.
“Soul Serenade”–Dave Marsh was one of the few critics who later picked up on the value of Aretha’s pop career. Church singing aims for abandonment, pop is built around avoiding that very temptation. This is a perfect blend. It starts quiet–a consummate display of discipline–and builds as if the singer and her audience…er, congregation…are lifted, moment by moment.
“Baby, Baby, Baby”–Is reach out for me boy still directed at the man she loved the way she loved a man before? Either way, she’s the guilty one….but only if loving him is a crime. Believe me, that’s a Pentecostal voice. No surprise she wrote it with her sister.
“Dr. Feelgood (Love is a Serious Business)”–The church piano reasserts itself. There’ s no build. She jumps right in. Sometimes you have to grab ’em right off. Wouldn’t want anybody nodding off in the back pew…let alone the front pew. This is the Sex Sermon folks. Second Sunday of the month! Wake up!
“Good Times”–Perhaps its time to mention that the girl had guts. Taking on–and taking down–Otis Redding might be enough for some people, but not for Aretha Franklin in 1967. She set her sights on Sam Cooke too. And if nobody could ever take down Sam Cooke, she certainly looked him in the eye on the way to higher ground. With an Ode to Saturday Night of course!
“Do Right Woman–Do Right Man”–Great as the vocal is, a surer sign of Aretha’s command of the studio (doubtless another benefit of the Columbia experience) is the overdubbed organ and piano, both played by her. I Never Loved a Man wasn’t only a vocal triumph, after all. She was in the process of proving herself a brilliant keyboardist and arranger as well.
“Save Me”–If there can be such a thing as a hidden gem on an album this popular, epic and influential, this would be it. A gut-bucket lick. A wailing vocal. The simplest arrangement on the record…and it just explodes. And somebody–maybe even the record company–knew albums exist for set ups….And the only song that could close this epic was….
“A Change is Gonna Come” –After the heartfelt intro–he had been a family friend, she didn’t have to pretend–Aretha didn’t add anything to Sam Cooke’s original, either temporally or spiritually. No one could. She sounds like she knows it–this is as reverent of its source as “Respect” was irreverent. But she also sounds like she knows that the moment could add something–that, two years after Cooke’s death, the idea that change was not going to come, had already reasserted itself. To turn that reassertion on its head was, perhaps, to rage against the dying of the light. Else affirmation of the sinner’s doubt. Given all that was at stake, no one who felt the loss, then or now, could blame her for trying too hard.
Aretha Franklin used the I Never Loved a Man sessions to set herself free–to insist that anyone not reaching for Higher Ground will soon be walking on the Devil’s dirt. The brilliance–and the resistance to the tides of History–flowed for a decade before the weight of carrying a burden no one should have to carry alone overwhelmed her. Being Queen proved as lonely as being King. At some point she retreated to the safe harbor of professionalism. There was no long fall and she always retained the capacity to, now and again, lift the heart.
But every reason she ever mattered was born in 1967, at the sessions, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and New York, that produced this album.
Whether she–or any of the tiny number who could ever be called her peers– lived and sang in vain will, alas, be up to us.
Some time in the last twenty-four hours, one of the Twitter accounts I follow (doesn’t matter which one) linked to a meme that was something like Name a cover that’s better than the original, Jeff Buckley and Sinead O’Connor don’t count.
Well I wasn’t gonna play, either here or on Twitter. Sorting through a thousand treasured covers so I could pick one seemed like an exercise for people with too much time on their hands, never one of my particular problems (even less so in a week when I’m contemplating making The Byrds Play Dylan–which might yield half a dozen contenders all by itself-–my next Track-by-Track).
But I couldn’t help clicking through and scrolling down a list of other people’s picks. The day was slow enough for that.
It was the usual mishmash. Jimi’s version of “All Along the Watchtower” was the most frequently mentioned by far and, except for maybe the predictability of it all, I got no problem with that. Then there were all the Twitter people playing How obscure can I get?
Then, just as I was about to move on to some other page, I saw this:
Take Me to the River.
And then somebody wrote Yes! And I love Al Green.
Look. War, famine and pestilence I accept as part of our fallen world.
But preferring this…
Is why God sends plagues.
I’ll spare you what I thought about Green Day’s version of “I Fought the Law” being better than the Clash’s “original.”
(NOTE: Sinead O’Connor is famous for her scintillating cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” What Jeff Buckley is famous for covering I have no idea…Enlightenment appreciated.)
10) Leslie Kong The “King” Kong Compilation (The Historic Reggae Recordings 1968-1970) (1981)
Kong was among the most famous reggae producers and label owners and it was his records–by Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff, The Pioneers, Toots and the Maytals–that broke the music internationally. All his big stars except Cliff are represented here and, while the music hardly lacks a political edge, Kong’s artists seemed to prize spiritual concerns above all.
Dekker’s records (especially “The Israelites”) are likely the ones recognizable to general American audiences (Cliff broke really big after Kong’s untimely death, producing his own biggest hits in a style clearly influenced by Kong’s earlier productions for him, fair enough since he was the one who induced Kong to start a recording label in the first place–both Cliff and Desmond Dekker reported undergoing deep spiritual crises after Kong died, which perhaps speaks to the sort of man it took to produce these visionary sides). In 1970, Kong wanted to release a comp of early tracks he had cut on Bob Marley’s Wailers. Bunny Wailer allegedly threatened to put a curse on him if he did so. Kong released the record anyway and died within the year.
That’s one theory on his unfortunate demise. My own involves the C.I.A.
I only had to hear this record once to know it wasn’t God.
9) The Beatles(1962-1966) (1973)
The “Red” album (and the accompanying Blue album, about which more in a minute) is how a lot of us who just missed the sixties got to know the Beatles. Well that and the air, where, like Elvis (and no one else, then or now), they were ever-present.
And, from this distance, this is still the best way to learn (or relearn) just how astonishing they were. Yes, there are dozens of tracks from the period I wouldn’t want to live without that aren’t here….But if you just want the essence, this can hardly be bettered. I bought this a week or two after I skipped my senior prom and took my mom to see I Wanna Hold Your Hand instead. In a life filled with mistakes, that might be the best series of decisions I ever made.
8) The Beatles1967-1970 (1973)
I’ve always been an “early Beatles” devotee…and I’ve always known how silly the distinction is. This does just as fine a job of narrating their fall as the Red album does their rise. Hearing it now (after not having listened to it for a few years while watching more than the usual amount of water flow beneath the bridge) I can hear a lot of brilliance I previously cottoned to only as craft. (“Old Brown Shoe” anyone? “Let It Be?” I could go on.)
I’ve always leaned toward them having broken up at the right time, too–a feeling once locked into place by hearing “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” segue into “Honky Tonk Women” on an oldies station…Ouch!.
But “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” was the only thing I heard this time that didn’t make me wonder if I’d been wrong all along.
I can say all that and still admit I’ve never believed they meant a word of it, or needed to. I just don’t know if it makes me better or worse than those who need to believe otherwise.
7) Blondie (1976)
A stunning debut that, unsurprisingly, went mostly unnoticed at the time because Debbie Harry had dropped in from another planet. The look was futuristic with a pre-civilizational undertow (and who could resist that combo), but the voice was something new under the sun and the not-quite-flat affect was pure cult. No way would a woman who looked like that and wrote such whip-smart lyrics ever fail to become a star. No way would any woman who sounded like that ever be more than a novelty success.
One thing you can hear that might split the difference even now is how she had assembled–or latched onto–a band that could do most anything (never mind whether the vocal is from a Betty Boop contest in a Dada club, why is the guitar break from a spaghetti western?….Forty years later and it’s still confusing.) Of course, we know which way it went. She changed just enough. I’m glad. But I’m glad this exists, too. The world can always use a smile, especially if there will never be any way to know whether the joke’s on you.
6) Brenton Wood18 Best (1991)
Southern born, L.A. raised (and based) soul singer who you probably think just about defines “journeyman.”
I’d give this a close listen before you settle on a conclusion. His two big hits, “Gimme Little Sign” and “The Oogum Boogum Song,” catch him in prime form, but he stretched that form so gently and often that his comp amounts to a mysterious shape all its own.
I wasn’t surprised, reading up on him, to find he was an acolyte of L.A. r&b legend Jesse Belvin–Wood’s style seems an updating of the Belvin ethos. He floats like a butterfly, and, as this goes along, you start wondering just how many places he can land without getting swatted. Pretty soon, you’ve listened to the whole thing with a smile on your face and you know why he was a hero everywhere from East L.A. to the Carolina beaches to Leslie Kong’s island.
5) Neil YoungTonight’s the Night (1975)
Along with 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, my go-to Neil Young.
I seriously hope these are the two bleakest albums the man has recorded. But, being hooked on them, I don’t know if I can relate to him being any happier. (Which, except for “Rockin’ in the Free World”–where he ain’t all that much happier–he isn’t on any of the other stray tracks I love from across his career.)
One thing I admire is that he never made another Death Record. It’s not only cheating if you make more than one, it means you’ve made less than one. Now I hear there’s a live version from 1973, when this was recorded. Some say it’s even bleaker.
I’m thinking hard on whether that makes two…and whether I really want to go there to find out.
4) Elton JohnRock of the Westies (1975)
Along with 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, my go-to Elton John album. I don’ t know if this and Tonight’s the Night are my favorite 1975 albums…but if you told me those were the only two I could keep, from a year Fleetwood Mac and Al Green were going strong, I wouldn’t kick.
Pop gems throughout. And if “Grow Some Funk of Your Own,” isn’t Elton’s finest vocal I don’t know what is. It’s certainly Bernie Taupin’s greatest lyric. I don’t know much, but I know when the gay English dude can dance with the pretty senorita in a border town without having a knife pulled on him and being told to get back home, we’ll all be living in a better place.
3) David Lindley, El Rayo-X (1981)
This is a nice debut album from a west coast sideman who had played with everybody who was anybody in the California Rock scene. The closest his ethos comes to resembling a big name’s is probably Warren Zevon, though it’s crossed with Jackson Browne and a light, but persistent south of the border flavor.
There are twelve tracks and eleven of them go down easy.
I made this my impulse buy of the summer on the recommendation of Robert Christgau. He gave it an A- and scribbled something about the drummer and this being the best live music he’d heard from the famous San Francisco scene of the late sixties.
What is it really? A bunch of jamming musicians’ musicians who opened at Monterrey Pop and had the same chance to wow the world that was seized upon by Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Otis Redding. As I was listening to it (a not unpleasant experience mind you–they always played better than they sang, even in the studio–but not making me wish I did drugs so I could relate either), I remembered that Christgau once gave B+ grades to Tanya Tucker’s Greatest Hits, Chirpin’ and Beauty and the Beat.
I know taste is subjective, but the onset of senility can’t be discounted.
1) Smokey RobinsonSmokin’ (1978)
CD version of Smokey’s live album from ’78. Long difficult to find on vinyl so this is the first time I’ve heard it.
It’s a wonderful album, filled with great moments from both the singer and his crack touring band. Needless to say, they don’t lack for material. I especially love the interaction with a black audience neither he nor they had reason to suspect would become permanently mixed again when the following year’s “Cruisin'” put his solo career back in the cultural space he had earned as frontman for the Miracles. And Smokey was as great on stage as he was in the studio–just one more way he was the complete poet Bob Dylan surely meant when either his mind or his mouth called him America’s greatest living example of same.
And nothing–not even “Mickey’s Monkey”–can match the first moment, when he steps to the mike in front of what he must have assumed would always be Black America and only Black America to open the show with “The Tracks of My Tears” and invests it with such shattering intensity it feels like he’s trying to save the American Experiment single-handed–and as if he just might be the only man who can.
If you lived through 1978, it might take you the rest of the day to shake that off.
I’m chalking up the album’s obscurity to the same forces that killed Leslie Kong.
[NOTE: The links below are a mix of studio and live cuts….I just picked a version that conveyed the mood.]
As my long-time readers will have guessed by now, I’m not fond of doing straight up record reviews. I’ve done a few, but not as many as might be expected given the concerns of this blog. For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, and unlike movies and books, traditional record reviews seem to lack easy connections to the broader context I prefer.
But more of my free time is spent listening to music than anything else so it makes sense for me to find a way to comment more on individual records.
I’m not giving up on highlighting singles in the How Much Can One Record Mean category (“Brown Sugar” really is due), or singers in the Vocalist of the Month category. But those essays require maximum effort and concentration. Any writer only has so much of that to give.
Especially with a large part of mine going to fiction (and a fifty-hour-a-week job on the side to pay bills and such), I’ve been looking for a way to get more music writing on here in a focused, album-oriented form. Upshot is a new category called Track-by-Track, whereby I just roll out the tracks from some classic album and say whatever comes to mind during a latest listen.
Unfiltered, I hope….
History: Hot Rocks 1964-71 is by far the biggest selling album in the Rolling Stones’ catalog, moving twelve million copies to date. The album was meant to grab money and did. The Stones had just fallen out with their manager, Allen Klein, who had reportedly duped them out of their early catalog. Mick’s deal with Beelzebub evidently didn’t prepare him for Business Mangers.
Knowing he wouldn’t have access to the band’s future material, Klein’s label (ABKCO) released Hot Rocks to cash in on the moment .
I’m sure the mercenary nature of the release was well known to the rock press of the time, and I assume it helps explain the opinions ranging from a decided coolness (see Dave Marsh in the Rolling Stone Record Guide) to outright hostility (see Robert Christgau’s contemporary B- review in the Village Voice, since collected in Christgau’s Record Guide to Rock Albums of the 70s).
Whatever their real objections, the basic stated objections to the album as a Rolling Stones’ record, was that it was both too skimpy to convey the Stones’ real significance and too obvious to be of any use to those who already understood that significance.
But Hot Rocks, while not everything it might have been, is still an essential album. All these years later, you can learn things from it.
In the “not perfect” column:
-A pedestrian front cover. The picture on the back–a Dark Angel surrounded by Cro-Magnons–is the essence of the early and mid-period Stones represented on the tracks within. As a front cover it would have been one of the best ever. The Five Haircuts look that’s there instead is neither here nor there. Not terrible but certainly not memorable. Mostly, it’s appropo of nothing. That’s something no album cover–let alone one representing the cream of a great band’s greatest period–should ever be.
-Track selection: Though it was a big hit, I’d of dropped the atypical “As Tears Go By” (done better by Marianne Faithfull anyway) and added “It’s All Over Now.” “Play With Fire,” “Ruby Tuesday” and “Wild Horses” are all great and plenty enough to represent Mick’s ballad singing.
-And a bit of bad luck: The band co-owned the Sticky Fingers tracks with Klein/ABKCO, so “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” were available to close out the album. But one more album (Exile on Main Street) and one more year and this could have closed with “Tumbling Dice”….which would have been perfect in every way. That not being an option, whoever was making the track selection and sequencing decisions for ABKCO should have reversed the final two tracks and concluded with “Brown Sugar.” The greatest side opener in the history of albums would have made an even greater closer here…and a perfect capstone on the themes the Stones had explored from the beginning and were to become trapped by in the long years to come.
Like I say, it needs it own essay…
But against all that, there’s this. Far from being inessential to people who loved the Stones (because, per Christgau, it offered nothing not already available on their great albums), Hot Rocks had much to offer even the acolyte, then and now. “19th Nervous Breakdown,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and “Honky Tonk Women”–all huge hits and three of their (or anyone’s) most essential–weren’t on any original album. “Mother’s Little Helper” hadn’t been on any original US album. The live version of “Midnight Rambler” was stronger than the (still great) studio version on Let It Bleed and only available on a live album Christgau did not recommend. That meant nearly twenty percent of what Hot Rocks placed in the company of the band’s greatest and most iconic music was, at the time, either not available on albums of similar quality…or any album at all.
Sounds like a bargain to me.
It’s still a bargain.
“Time Is On My Side”–Perfect. The Stones’ first American top ten. Irma Thomas still claims they swiped it from her and that it was her big chance for a pop hit. That’s nonsense. It was her B-side of an A-Side that went #52 Pop. Anyway, she had swiped it from Kai Winding, the whiter-than-white big band leader who recorded the original the previous year. Her version was fine, (love the spoken word part). But even if they’d gone head-to-head, the Stones would have won the old-fashioned way–by being better. Especially great here, because you don’t have to hold your breath waiting to find out if it’s one of Mick’s epic fails–which were not infrequent in the days when he was learning Black American English phonetically.
“Heart Of Stone”–The Great Theme arrives, best summed up as: Just Try It Bitch. With a searing guitar break, of course. Those were already the band’s other great theme.
“Play With Fire”–Did I mention a Theme? The boy’s quick, too. Only took him a heart-of-stone beat to move up from Street Lollies to the Aristocracy. Minor Aristocracy maybe, but still. He hates her worse, too. Just like a poor boy should. Especially if the poor part was faux.
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”–The great leap, especially the vocal. Servants to the Blues no longer. From now on, they would play master. Or, if they felt like it, “Massa.” Just try and stop them. And, of course, they did it with a lyric that pretended they weren’t getting what everybody knew you weren’t getting, even if you made it with three chicks the week they (or was it their chick?) were on a losing streak. Didn’t tell any of your chicks not to play with fire, did you? No matter how bad you wanted to? Didn’t think so.
“As Tears Go By”–The closest thing to a weak track. Not really weak, but no aspect of it–lyrics, music, vocal–fit the Stones’ ethos and that makes it a drag on any album, even it it always sounded okay on the radio.
“Get Off Of My Cloud”–Lethal. Just Try It Bitch switched out for hare-brained politics. Just Try It World! I’ll make you feel so-o-o-o-o bad. And who lives on the ninety-ninth floor anyway? Surely not the Aristocracy.
“Mother’s Little Helper”–Their side-wipe at Middle Class Hypocrisy. Mom whines about the kids and everything else, but is on her way to OD’ing on Tranquilizers. Ha, ha, ha!. A touch obvious and nothing Shaw hadn’t done better decades before. But they sounded exactly like an addled American garage band catching their one moment of inspiration and that was a huge part of their cachet. Also a neat sideways bend into the folk rock that would define them in ’66 and ’67 as Brian Jones set out to prove that you didn’t have to be a hypocrite to wind up in the bottom of the swimming pool, not breathing.
“19th Nervous Breakdown”–A perfect fusion of their purely musical R&B roots and their lyrical misogyny, which was just left-field enough for those who needed them to be something other than louts to project as irony…or, better yet, “irony.” You know, the kind no one gets but you. But they really did walk a fine line between empathy and assault….for a while.
“Paint It Black”–A whisper-to-a-scream call to the stalker lurking inside Everyman. Shaded by the possibility that, in 1966, Everyman was, like as not, a nineteen-year-old clearing a rice paddy with an M-16.
“Under My Thumb”–The Aristocracy nailed. Then ruled. Not by you….but you could dream, if you were so inclined. This is probably what Harvey Weinstein–fourteen in the summer of ’66–meant when he said things were different when he was growing up.
“Ruby Tuesday”–A rare and beautiful exception to the rule, perhaps because Keith wrote the lyrics about someone (a Show Biz kid named Linda Keith) for whom he had enough affection to alert her English actor dad when she was on the verge of disappearing forever. Into the underbelly of New York city and the arms of Jimi Hendrix as it happened. A rescue operation was launched. She was saved. Whether it was written before, during or after, this is about the hope that she–and the thousands like her who were a new phenomenon of the culture that enabled the Stones, and which they enabled in turn–would be. That’s still what it’s about.
“Let’s Spend The Night Together”–Ode to a one night stand with someone who is probably not Ruby Tuesday. Back on track, back on the sly, and a perfect close–musically, lyrically, spiritually–to the first period.
“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”–The end draws near for the Brian Jones era with (coincidentally or not) the first entry in the Stones’ advanced efforts to find (or was it create? and from what?) the perfect rock and roll record by fusing straight up rape-and-pillage music with a stance on the era’s politics that had something for everyone. You could be one with them (by pretending they were merely being “ironic”) or you could be appalled by them (by believing they meant what they said, even if they remained at arm’s length from everyone, including themselves). But good luck trying to ignore them.
“Street Fighting Man”–And then they doubled down…Worth remembering they turned the sixties back on themselves before Altamont.
“Sympathy For The Devil”–Brian Jones now reduced to “backing vocalist.” On Wikipedia, this is referred to as “samba rock.” Of course it is. Is that why I can still hear Satan laughing? Then again, if ever a record could constitute its own category….
“Honky Tonk Women”–MIck Taylor introduces himself, and, unbelievably, a harder edge, abetted here by Reparata and the Delrons, among others. The Shangri-Las, alas, were not available. Just as well. If they had been, the world might have cracked open. Not especially memorable in its “Country Honk” incarnation on Let It Bleed (where it didn’t bleed a bit). Here it bleeds. And, for those counting that’s four “most perfect ever rock and roll records in a row”…and, for once, just possibly ironic, no matter how often MIck and/or Keith had ever met a gin-soaked barroom queen, in Memphis or anywhere else.
“Gimme Shelter”–Make that five in a row….irony grows distant. It can’t keep company with dread. If it’s not really a celebration of rape (and the destruction of everything)–or at least of the victim learning to want what the rapist wants (which is one way for everything to end)–it’s not really scary is it? But at least they hired a woman to talk back.
“Midnight Rambler (Live)”–Longer, looser and tougher than the excellent version on Let It Bleed. And if “I’ll stick my knife right down your throat” has ever sounded “ironic” anywhere, it certainly isn’t here. The theme seems fully formed by now….As though there could be no further developments. There were to be further developments.
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”–Donald Trump’s theme song, from Day One of his campaign to date. It’s now obvious they wrote it for him…and only him. Steve Bannon he sent packing. Not this. There are those who believe its selection could only have been focus-grouped. They’re the same people who have spent thirty straight months getting their teeth kicked in and promising tomorrow will be different. Somewhere or other, somebody once said “Childhood living is easy to do…” I’ll keep listening. It’ll come to me.
“Brown Sugar”–Further developments. Slave rape. The irresistible joy of it no less. Top Five all over the English-speaking world in 1971. #1 in the U.S. (I have no idea what this says about them, or us). And, if irony, meaningless. I still expect them to play it with gusto at Trump’s second inaugural. Not only that, it has a good beat and you can dance to it! This probably should have closed…but it sounds great coming from the fade of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” as if they were re-purposing themselves for one last great thrust.
“Wild Horses”–And, finally, the rapist wants what the victim wants…”Now you’ve decided to show me the same.” Lolly? Aristocrat? Super model? Royalty? I still wonder.
The Vietnam War–A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: The Soundtrack (2017)
I haven’t seen Ken Burns’ latest on The Vietnam War (which I notice sustains the implicit arrogance of so many of his other titles–The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, etc.–the persistent implication that he has rendered the last word on each subject in turn, and one need look no further).
But the two-disc soundtrack (thirty-seven tracks in all) looked promising, maybe because I didn’t read too carefully past the head-spinning, conceptually heart-stopping triple-header near the top of the first disc: “It’s My Life,” “Eve of Destruction,” “Turn, Turn, Turn.”
Now that I’ve had the soundtrack experience, I can make the following observations.
First: It’s never a good sign when “flimmakers” insist on putting their names in the title of their film. It’s really not a good sign when they insist on putting their names on the title of the soundtrack.
Second: The cover’s as pedestrian, and perversely revealing, as the title. Wonder how the big shots at PBS would have reacted if Burns and company had insisted on an image that reversed the positions of the American fighting man and the Vietnamese peasant above? Wonder how they would have reacted if they had reversed the positions and then replaced the image of the Vietnamese peasant with an image of a North Vietnamese fighting man? Wouldn’t that have been a least a little unsettling?
Third: And shouldn’t we want a thirty-seven track soundtrack of The Vietnam War to be at least a little unsettling?
I’m not saying nothing good happens. That triple-header is all it promised to be, even coming out of a pedestrian country number (Johnny Wright’s Country #1, “Hello, Vietnam,” which, along with Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” is supposed the represent the Pro-War, or at least Pro-American Fighting Man position, which, if you’re gonna go there, why not pick a blood-and-guts number like “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” which is also a better record). Ray Charles’ take on “America the Beautiful” is a great setup for “What’s Going On.” And having Janis Joplin bleed out of Bob Dylan’s folk-phase version of his own “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” provides one of those recontextualizing jolts that make such comps worth our attention in the first place.
But, my God, what a missed opportunity.
Not having seen it, I can’t speak for the way the music is used in the series (the more accurate description for the “film” in question), but there were a few good ways to go with the soundtrack and whoever did the choosing, chose “none of the above.”
One good way, would have been just a straight run of the “iconic music of the Vietnam era” promised by the cover.
That would have meant including “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and both the Dylan and Hendrix versions of “All Along the Watchtower.” That would have meant more than one Creedence number (and if there was only one, it should have been “Fortunate Son” or “Run Through the Jungle” not “Bad Moon Rising,” great and appropo as it is). That would have meant the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” over the Temptations’ relatively pedestrian “Psychedelic Shack,” and their “We Can Be Together” over the Beatles’ “Let It Be” as an album closer, with the Fabs represented instead by “Hey Jude,” or “Revolution” or something from The White Album. That would have meant the Band’s “The Weight.” That would have meant including Edwin Starr’s “War” and the Chambers’ Brothers “Time Has Come Today” and the Supremes’ “Reflections.” That would have meant a track or two from the Doors and adding the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” to their “Gimme Shelter.” That would have meant the Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.” That would have meant Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “500 Miles” as a side-opener (instead of Dylan’s blustering and not nearly as convincing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”)
Well, none of that happened.
Which would be fine if, instead, those choosing had come up with inspired numbers from the Secret Sixties and used this high-profile opportunity to introduce new audiences to not-so-well-known numbers which caught–and still catch–the tenor of the times as well as anything even if they were never big hits. Think the Mamas and the Papas of “Straight Shooter” (or, as I never fail to mention “Safe in my Garden”). Think the Peter, Paul and Mary of “Too Much of Nothing.” (Dylan, incidentally, is the only artist who gets three cuts here. There should be less of Dylan the singer and more of Dylan the writer. Standing this close to Janis Joplin or Eric Burdon, forget the Howlin’ Wolf or Wilson Pickett or “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” he does not come off well absent his rock and roll voice.)
Anyway back to thinking: Think the Supremes of “Forever Came Today.”Think the Shangri-Las of “Never Again” or “I’ll Never Learn.” Think the Fairport Convention of “Nottamun Town” or “Meet on the Ledge” or even “I’ll Keep it With Mine” instead of “The Lord is in This Place” (fine and haunting, but too much of a mood piece to stand between “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “For What It’s Worth” without being diminished and diminishing them in turn, something a well made comp should never do).
And still thinking: Think the Byrds of “Goin’ Back” or “Draft Morning,” or even “The Ballad of Easy Rider.” Think the Waylon Jennings of “Six White Horses.” Think the Nancy Sinatra of “Home.”
Think all the beach soul numbers that carried a hint of warning behind even the most positive dance-happy messages (Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs on “May I” or the Tams on “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy”–think what that must have felt like if you heard it in Saigon while you were waiting for the next chopper out.
One could go on. One could on so far as to have used these numbers to fill an entire soundtrack by themselves.
Or one could have gone yet another, third, direction and used them as stitching between the more obvious anthems and constructed a soundtrack that wouldn’t quit and wouldn’t die.
Of course, for that, you would have needed less taste and more guts.
Nothing Ken Burns or PBS would ever be accused of, I’m sure.
Absent all that, unless you really need Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” in a context where you don’t have to listen to him sing for a whole album without the Weavers, I say give this one a pass.
Me, I always liked Dave Marsh’s idea that if “Leader of the Pack” had come out a year later, it would have been heard as a much better metaphor for the unfolding quagmire from which we have never emerged.
And, for the record, I wouldn’t really have closed with “We Can Be Together.” I’d of let that be penultimate (replacing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and closed with this, from the truly “closing” year of 1972.
“We had so much fun in two years, there was no more fun to be had.”
John Phillips (from A Gathering of Flowers, intro to “California Dreamin'”)
The career of the Mamas & the Papas played out with a kind of classical purity. They embodied the dark and the light of “the Sixties” by living lives that were consummately hedonistic and making music that was almost completely self-referential.
“Don’t worry,” their best music said, and says, ” if you aren’t here yet, you will be.”
“It’s also entirely possible,” that same music said, and says, “that we’ll have moved on by then.”
To make it work, they needed to carry off a style of organic arrogance that made the Rolling Stones look like supplicants.
They made it work.
Naturally, being organic, it couldn’t last.
Funny thing, though.
I keep trying to get to the bottom of it.
And I can’t.
Oh sure, there were greater groups. Greater artists. And I have no idea how they seemed in their own time. I was in second grade.
I know how they seem now, from this time: Unfathomable.
And what better description of their time can you get?
Their backstory became famous. In “Creeque Alley” they even made it sound famously typical, which, except for selling millions of records, it maybe was.
But, when I say there were greater artists, I really only mean there were artists whose greatness the Great Narratives imposed by others accepted more readily.
Because whenever I want to cast myself back there–and boy do I–there’s nobody I listen to more, nobody more dangerous, more unsettling, more….thrilling. Their time was the time worth understanding, the time we never walked away from in either dream or (more’s the pity) reality.
And, in memory at least, they are the ones who held it in their hands, more one with that time than literally anyone, one of exactly two sixties’ acts–two any-era acts really–who might have had a deal with the Devil in place.
They were different than the Stones, though. Mick and Keith (well, mostly Mick) just went ahead and made a straight deal. Why not? What did it cost them?
Send Brian Jones to the funeral pyre he was already bound for and tweak John Lennon’s nose now and again and what riches might await!
Who wouldn’t take that deal?
Besides, they were Brits and there was never going to be any more England anyway. Big whoop.
But to have punched a hole in the American boat, to have had your wings melt so close to that sun, ah, now we’re talking subversion–and arrogance–of truly epic proportions.
Come hither, their deal said, and you’ll be the only act alive who can (as the liner notes for one of their many anthologies had it) bridge Rodgers & Hart and Monterey Pop.
Who wouldn’t take that deal?
Well, somebody like me maybe. But that’s different. I was in second grade.
When I was in fourth grade, a couple of years after the Mamas & the Papas broke up (their two years of so much fun there was no more to be had having run out), I took the other deal, the Christian believer deal. I took it, knowing even then, that the biggest part of the deal lay in knowing I’d never be safe from the Devil who makes the deals (he doesn’t bother with the nonbelievers once they make their deal, why would he?) and never have so much fun there’d be no more to be had.
That’s as much as I ever knew about the deal. What my background and choices did prepare me for was understanding singers and their power.
And, oh what singers they were, those four, when they were together in their time. Nobody like them. And it wasn’t like they didn’t know it. Their knowing it is evident in pretty much every photograph they ever sat for.
…and pretty much every line they ever sung.
How they got together was famous even in their own time. They didn’t have to wait for biographers, which was just as well, since there’s never been a good one.
Naomi Cohen reimagined herself as Cass Elliot, then Mama Cass. Then she hung around until the others took her in, or on, or…something.
John Phillips reimagined himself as the type of erstwhile folkie who could end up with Michelle Gilliam, who soon reimagined herself as Mrs. Phillips (“I liked folk music,” she said much, much later, “but what I really liked were folk musicians!”)
Denny Doherty, a touch uncomfortable imagining himself as settling for the title of Mister Cass Elliot, soon reimagined himself as somebody who could have an affair with Mrs. Phillips and was lucky–or was it unlucky?–enough to find her willing to share his illusion, be it ever so briefly.
That was just the personal stuff.
Out of that, the music.
John Phillips said, as often as anyone would listen, that he couldn’t write from anything but experience. So they had experiences. That whole thing about a lifetime’s worth in two years was just an excuse to make hits and money. No experiences, no hits. No hits, no money. The legend only came about because they were so good at living lives so many others wished they could live, and even better at singing about it. They reeled off a dozen radio classics in short order and four albums that stagger about a bit, but never quit yielding surprises when you stop and listen close enough. (A fifth, from a contractually obligated “reunion” gig a few years later, was desultory….there was no more fun to be had.)
Their own rise, their own Zeitgeist, their own fall, their own destruction: all right there in the music that came out of the experiences.
For about twenty-five or thirty perfect months (depending on who’s counting and who’s defining perfect), they lived more dreams than four mere lifetimes could hold.
But in order to get the loot, they had to let the world in on it, and from the release of “Go Where You Wanna Go” (instantly pulled in favor of the just-as-perfect “California Dreamin’,” which somebody had initially made the very weird mistake of imagining as a Barry McGuire record) to having the commercial failure of “Safe In My Garden” assured by their sudden absence from their own lives (no more touring, no more television appearances, no more pretending everything, or even anything, was all right) the world grabbed hold. You could say the world has never let go.
And the arc was perfect.
“Go Where You Wanna Go” can’t be plumbed. Don’t even try. Even if you make a definitive decision on You don’t understand, that a girl like me can/can’t have just one man–that is, whether you want to stick with the lyric sheet (the groupie/muse’s ultimate lament) or what the ear can’t help hearing (Women’s Lib on speed!) at least some of the time–it doesn’t really help, so there’s no need to get all balled up about it. I’ve gone there for you and my sincere advice is to go right on thinking it’s simple. It’s not. It’s not even complicated in any ordinary dictionary sense of the word. More like kaleidoscopic.There’s so much going on that if you stop believing it’s simple or go on pretending that it’s complicated but only in the usual ways, it will eat your mind out from the inside.
It will make it like the good part of the Sixties never even happened except in dreams.
You don’t want that!
Better to just go on a journey. “California Dreamin'” so to speak.
It’s a journey only they can take you on and the magic’s in the music for sure–the mostly sharp writing, the Wrecking Crew time and again measuring up to the instrumental challenge of matching and underpinning the vocals, the formal elements of the bottomless harmonies.
But mostly the magic’s in the elements there is no real vocabulary for, musical or otherwise.
It’s not in the come hither. It’s in the nah-na-na-na-nah.
..Which starts right there in “California Dreamin’.”
I mean, from this distance you can hear the fear in it–and you can hear it overridden, stomped on. Put out to pasture. it was the sound that mattered and it was the sound that did it.
We’re so close, the sound said, that the obvious–and fierce to the point of at least metaphorical bloodletting–competition going on, can be turned on its head. They were so determined to be as one that all the counterpointing in the harmonies, all the “yeah’s” that meant “no” and all the “no’s” that meant “yeah”–or “yeah?”–were as nothing. I mean, just listen to them! And, as Lou Adler would have it (naming their first album If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, easily the best-ever album title, after his first audio/visual impressions of the group) just look at them.
The imagery was perfect, almost as if it had been guided into existence by the unique, unsurpassable blend of their voices.
Or perhaps those voices demanded the acceptance of any old imagery they chose as the new definition of perfection.
The dream of the “Sixties” is, after all, right there.
Today will be what we want it to be.
You know, go where you wanna go.
Even the drugs will be cool. I mean….especially the drugs will be cool…
And, by extension, if today will be just what we want it to be, tomorrow will be even better!
In one fell swoop, the Folkies from Everywhere–Mexico, So-Cal, No-Cal, Nova Scotia, Alexandria (Virginia, but it might as well have been Egypt), the Hungry I and the Village and the Virgin Islands, fusing into one–had re-formatted the Protestant Reformation’s promise of a future Golden Age (itself the rejection of the age-old idea that the Golden Age lay in the past, a rejection that set Europe’s Ice People on a staggering five-hundred-year winning streak of which, as of 1966, “Go Where You Wanna Go” seemed like no more or less than the natural conclusion and justification–yes it meant, and means, that much–your refusal to believe in it doesn’t negate its refusal to acknowledge your silly refusals).
There was, of course, no direction to head from there except Utopia or the Long Fall.
We know–perhaps they even knew–where that fork in the road always leads.
You can have the greatest vocal group in history and just happen to include among your number one of the Rock Era’s two or three finest vocal arrangers who just happens to be an ace songwriter.
You can hook up with a great producer and have unlimited access to the best session players in the world–the only people, perhaps, who could ever hope to match your Utopian vocal and visual presence to sounds worthy of comparison (and, believe me, if you ever get around to listening to what’s going on behind the vocals, you’ll find the Wrecking Crew at the far edge of their own weighty experience–not even for Pet Sounds or Frank Sinatra did they reach further). You can be the only group of any era to have great male and female lead singers, breathtaking close and counterpoint harmonies, the ability to answer male and/or female calls with male and/or female responses, and to have the answers be vocal/lyrical affirmations and/or refusals.
You can hold all that in your hand while you take the coolest drugs, ride around in the fastest cars, sleep in the biggest, spookiest movie star mansions with the partners of your choice under the world’s most beautiful skies.
You can even promise to share it with your listening audience–to transport them into your world, three golden minutes at at time.
And you can deliver over and over again.
But that choice between the Garden you found and the Mean Old World you couldn’t quite leave behind will linger on.
For you and the world.
That deal you made with the Devil will still have a payoff–and a due date.
For you….and the world.
In their case the payoff was in a run of gold records. Hell, they even sold albums like hotcakes, in an age when not many did.
The due date was the same as America’s. And the world’s.
By the time it was done, they were done.
Then the Mean Old World moved on–or pretended to.
They gave up and disbanded, the first of the great Utopian Sixties’ groups to do so. (The Byrds never really disbanded–pieces just kept falling off until nothing was left but the name. A very different process, but those were the two paradigms. Break up…or linger on. When the Doors and the Beatles broke up, they were copping the Mamas & Papas’ style. When everybody else lingered on, the pieces just kept falling off and they ended up being worse than nothing.)
That left the question of who got it and who didn’t.
Time has given us the answers, even if nearly everyone is reluctant to admit it.
We need not speak of what Lyndon Johnson, lingering on in the White House, understood. But in the Pop World that existed in the summer of ’68, it turned out that only Elvis Presley, reporting to a series of TV sound stages and with God on his side, and the Mamas & the Papas, cooped up in John and Michelle’s mansion a few miles away, concluding their deal with the Master of this world, understood that we would never walk away from 1968.
From a Pop Political standpoint, the Beatles now sound like clever children, the Stones like mere cynics. Bob Dylan was already retreating into the rusticism his great mid-sixties albums had promised an escape from. The Byrds lay in pieces on the ground and Brian Wilson had already blown his mind.
And, as Pop Prophets went, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison were finally only self-destructive.
But at least they made great music.
Never mind the Thinkers. No need to pay even a modicum of attention to them.
Whoever you thought they were, time has already washed them away.
We’re left with who got it. Who looked around at the world of 1968 and said: We’ll never walk away from this.
Well, these people:
Naomi Cohen (32) died of heart failure in a London hotel in 1974.
John Phillips died in 2001 (65) never having emerged from the drug-induced haze produced by having so much fun in two years there was no more to be had.
Denny Doherty (66) died in Mssissauga, Ontario in 2007, worn down by years of alcoholism.
Michelle Philips will still show up to defend her group’s legacy. She probably hopes you won’t ask too many questions about the incest allegations John’s oldest daughter has made.
It all seems so very long ago.
And so very present.
Today, you might go on the internet and find an essay that describes “Safe In My Garden” as “happy” and “bucolic,” as though it represents an ode to a safe space replete with milk and cookies and teddy bears.
That represents real fear, I think. An understanding–an awareness of the terror abiding within the song’s formal beauty, right down to its meandering close-out, as though the group–and the world–have literally run out of places to wanna go and things to wanna do and whoevers to wanna do it with.
Else oblivion. An almost insanely pure ability to resist the obvious–the persistence in demanding that, contra Philip K. Dick, if you stop believing in reality, it will stop believing in you.
Reality still believes. The Mamas & the Papas are still the ones who recognized and sang about it, half-shouting, half-crooning, straight from the heart of the dying dream.
The world’s on fire, they sang.
We know, because we struck the match. they did not have to sing.
Just off the top of your head, name the ten most important people in the History of Rock and Roll (individuals, not groups, though group members, including your favorite Beatle, are eligible). Not your favorites or who you think was the greatest, just the most important to the history of Rock and Roll America, however you define it. Here’s mine, in chronological order, by year of their first major impact (crazy game, so feel free to argue/substitute/debate in the comments. Just remember if you add somebody, you have to take somebody out!):
1) Fats Domino (1950) The Originator
2) Elvis Presley (1954) The Driver of the Narrative
3) Chuck Berry (1955) Rock and Roll America’s First Poet Laureate
4) James Brown (1956) The Visionary
5) Berry Gordy, Jr. (1960) Master of the Game
6) Bob Dylan (1962) Rock and Roll America’s Poet Laureate Redux
7) Jimi Hendrix (1967) Traveler through Time and Space
8) Aretha Franklin (1967) The Definer of Soul
9) John Lydon/Kurt Cobain (1976/1989) The Twinned Spirits of Destruction….neither complete without the other…and no, they didn’t need their particular groups the way John Lennon, Brian Wilson and Mick Jagger needed theirs.
[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.