Today is my 60th birthday. On my 20th birthday, I found out John Lennon had been assassinated (for those of you who think it was only a “murder” or a “killing,” peace be upon you), in New York City from Howard Cosell on Monday Night Football.
I was living alone in a roach-infested single-room apartment two blocks from Florida State’s campus. There was no phone in the apartment and no one to call if there had been. I turned off the television and played the only John Lennon solo record I had, which was a 45 of “Mind
Games.” Not much later I acquired Lennon’s greatest hits and his Plastic Ono LP which was life-altering. But they wouldn’t have mattered on the night of my 20th birthday either, because for me John Lennon was a Beatle and that really was something to be.
The Beatles were never my favorite band. I loved their music but any chance they would replace the Four Seasons and the Beach Boys after I saw the movie I Wanna Hold Your Hand in the spring of 1978, was made irrelevant when I found the Byrds’ Greatest Hits in a Woolco bargain bin in June. Plus, if I’d had a favorite Beatle (and I don’t) it wouldn’t have been John. Probably just because he was so many other people’s favorite. Usually people like rock critics, of whom I was already suspicious, not least because guys like John Lennon courted them, and because they let him.
John Lennon was a deeply flawed man to say the least: a violent-tempered, wife-abusing, audience-baiting hypocrite, one of many celebrities who loved everything about Marxism except the part where you don’t get to keep your money and didn’t seem to realize that was a feature, not a bug.
All that and more.
If you stick through all that, you realize Lennon was not quite predictable. In the age of celebrity politics that was just heaving into view on the night Lennon was shot, if one man in all that ghastly crew could have been counted on not to remain on the ridge in safety, it was John Lennon. I could imagine him hating or loving Donald Trump, for instance, or treating the whole age with the contempt it deserves, but I could never imagine him making excuses for the likes of Joe Biden. Maybe that makes me naive. But, as someone who felt a cold chill that night in December 1980, as I was listening to “Mind Games” over and over, a chill that could not be explained by my feelings about Lennon, the song, or even the Beatles, I can only say that from this end of the Frozen Silence, Elton John wasn’t wrong a few months later when he sang that his friend could not be replaced.
Many have tried. But he’s still John Lennon and they’re still not.
Happy Birthday to me. R.I.P. to the man who turned out to be as good a hero as any:
Tonight, for the first time in the Trump Era, confusion reigns. The U.S. Military (or the Israelis, or the Saudis, or Iraqi Intelligence–by the quality and quantity of the rumors, the only thing you can bet is that we’ll never know for sure), targeted and took out a key Iranian political and military leader near the Baghdad airport.
Those who have read Trump aright and a-wrong, are scratching their heads together, trying to figure out where this fits….and coming to no conclusions. Charlie Pierce, the most anti-Trump voice I follow on Twitter, is gibbering about the War Powers Act. Econ Chick, the most pro-Trump voice I follow took hours to come up with a theory that neither comforts nor explains much.
I, on the other hand, have spent my life listening to rock and roll so I know exactly what happened, which is one of four things:
—Hubris. Donald Trump actually planned and ordered the hit, throwing four years of careful campaigning and governing out the window and putting his relationship with is anti-war base at risk for the first time, not to mention his own strategy of carefully mixing a light military touch with blustering “crazy-man” rhetoric and carefully defined economic pressure because….well, that’s the definition of hubris. An excess of pride. Could happen to any man who has been beating the odds for four years running.
—A ball of confusion. Somebody, somewhere saw a high value target pop up, went off half-cocked on the fly, made a fairly low level decision to take the target out on impulse, and now everybody, including Trump, is trying to figure out how to clean up the mess because somebody didn’t care whether his re-election changes just went from cruise control to iffy.
—The system did what the system does: Longstanding hush-hush orders that may well have predated the Trump, or even Obama, administrations, pushed events in the direction they were always intended to go, and everyone, including Trump, was caught with their pants down, in which case Trump and his team will be dancing on hot coals until they find a solution or war breaks out (after which, who knows what–wars have been started by less)
—Sabotage: What was it Chuck Schumer said: The intelligence Community can get you six ways from Sunday. If that’s the case, they just handed Trump a crap sandwich.
Well, you know how I roll. Once you have an Intelligence Community, they will eventually call all the real shots. But we’re never going to “know,” any more than we “know” whether the CIA assassinated John Kennedy or submarined Jimmy Carter’s re-election chances. You can bet that anyone who comes up with proof will be labelled a conspiracy kook by the media which any self-respecting Swamp State must assure provides you with all the News they think you deserve to hear, nothing more, nothing less.
I confess I’m a little surprised by it all and have no idea whether it will have real consequences or be a tempest in teapot.
10) Various Artists Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968 (1972)
Ain’t it beautiful? The (reissue) cover, the concept, the overkill, the noise. Although some of these records were big hits, by the time Lenny Kaye got the idea to gather them all together in one place, there was at least some danger of them being forgotten. A bazillion spin-offs later (including three box sets put out by Rhino which, yes, yes, I have) and there are probably a thousand or so records that deserve to be forgotten but can’t be as long as somebody, anybody, is consumed by the desire to prove they can dive deeper into obscurity than you in search of a lost aesthetic that really should be ruling the world. This is still the best of the lot. I used to think I would change a cut or two, but time has only elevated it. It’s all emblazoned in my brain now. I wouldn’t change a thing.
9) Various Artists Super Girls (1986)
Okay, this I would change….a little. One last gasp at putting out a definitive girl group set, sans Phil Spector, in the vinyl era. There is plenty of great music, but the set is schizophrenic: girlish pop mixed with some hard-core R&B numbers that happened to be sung by females, with the unclassifiable Jaynetts and Shangri-Las thrown in for good measure, not to mention Brenda Lee. The schizoid problem, incidentally, would not have been solved by more Spector (the Paris Sisters are here and they only point up the set’s split personality.)
I’m glad to have it and all…but, pulling it out for the holidays, I was reminded why it never went into heavy rotation back in the days when vinyl was still king at my house. It surges….then it flags….then it surges..and you think, less might be more?
8) Various Artists 18 King Size Rhythm & Blues Hits (1967)
This doesn’t flag. I’m not sure it was the set it might have been (a couple of re-recordings…the Platters’ side is early, pre-fame) but it’s stellar just the same. I mean, that early Platters on “Only You” isn’t just a valid take, it’s a killer.
And don’t covers sometimes make a difference? Somehow that beautiful combination of colors that Columbia Records put together to promote their recently acquired King Records catalog always creates the right mood for me. I feel like I’m in a smoky corner waiting for the floor show on the wrong side of town in 1954 from the minute I see it on the shelf.
7) Graham Parker Howlin’ Wind (1976)
I’m always surprised to rediscover, yet again, that this isn’t a punk record. England, 1976, scenester, cultish following. How can it not be punk or at least “punkish”?
It’s always better for the distinction. Really , if you aren’t the Clash, I’d rather you not be punk, or, God forbid, punkish. Just my personal prejudice. And, every time I put this on–once or twice a decade–I swear I’m gonna get to know it better.
Maybe this will be the decade it really happens.
6) Paul McCartney and Wings Band on the Run (1973)
Okay, this one….I’m really going to devote myself to knowing this one better. Because I really want to know if “Let Me Roll It” constitutes an act of arrogance or subversion. I mean, one day, Paul McCartney woke up and said You know, John’s been a bit mean about me of late, so I think what I’ll do is, I’ll make a record in John’s signature style but, instead of just making it a parody or something, I’ll actually do John better than John can do John. I’ll not only do the singing and writing part of it better, I’ll even do the angry bit better. And I’ll leave it there as a reminder that John can only be John, but I can be anybody.
And I’ll let the world sort out whether any of that makes it worth a single hit of “Jet,” delivered straight to the veins without any jingling intervention by the radio.
Yep, I definitely need to listen more.
5) Toots & the Maytals Funky Kingston (1975)
I’m starting a little project of finishing off collecting the LPs listed on Greil Marcus’s Treasure Island recommendations from his 1979 illuminati standard Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island. One way to keep myself (and my pocket book) interested is by listening to a lot of the ones I already have. This one–which I’ve had forever but somehow never acquired an intimate knowledge of–was a revelation. It’s been released in various forms on both vinyl and CD, but I can’t imagine any lineup beating the one I have. Toots Hibbert was/is frequently compared to Otis Redding (for whom I’ve been developing a whole new appreciation I’ll probably need to write about in the future) but I hear more Ray Charles myself. That’s hardly a bad thing, especially since reggae puts even more structural limits on a singer than southern soul. I don’t count it a coincidence that Toots joined Ray in bringing whole new worlds to John Denver’s “Country Roads.” Call it the vision thing.
This one’s going into heavy rotation.
4) The Maytals Do the Reggae 1966-70 (1988)
In vinyl days (which I’m happy to say are coming ’round again), this was always more my speed. Maybe it still is, even if I’m never convinced I’ve comprehended a single word.
Roots reggae at it’s Leslie Kong-produced peak, then, and, of course, I don’t mean I failed to understand it. It always sounded like a soundtrack for the horror stories my missionary parents used to bring home from reform schools (or, in my dad’s case, prisons) filled with the wretched of the modern earth.
3) Dave Mason Alone Together (1970)
Weird album. Loved by some, dismissed by others, the crit-illuminati couldn’t get a reliable read on it and, despite my innate desire to confound the confounders at every possible turn, neither can I.
It fits the tenor of its times: Bloozy, Anglo, Laid Back Cali, uncredited Eric Clapton sideman-ship floating around in there somewhere. I can’t really make sense of it. But what do I know? The Dave Mason I loved was the one who had a big pop hit with “We Just Disagree,” which still makes me smile and remember–I like the rest but in thee end it just makes me shrug, no matter how much I want the worlds to collide.
2) Warren Zevon Stand in the Fire(1980)
One of the greatest live albums ever recorded. Performance freed up something in Zevon that rarely got loose in the studio. His vocals were better, his bands were tighter, even his lyric improvs were better. (Has there ever been a leap of faith into a dark zone that landed more beautifully on point than changing the line after There’s a .38 Special up on on the shelf from If I start feeling stupid I’ll shoot myself to And I don’t intend to use it on myself?) No, of course there hasn’t.
Bonus tracks later added to the CD only subtracted from the overall effect. It’s perfect as it stands, from the opening title track (written for the tour) all the way down to a “Bo Diddley’s a Gunslinger” that links the album to the history of the world and, unimaginably, tops the original.
1) War Greatest Hits(1976)
Was it really possible to sum up the entire decade, and all the decades to come, in 1976?
It was, but you would never have known it without these guys. Without them, it all just felt incoherent.
In a generous mood, I try to believe “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” was/is the record that best defined my beloved 70’s. But in my heart I know it is/was “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” even if my only cavil with this mind-bending album is that it substitutes the powerful hit single version for the long version that’s too harrowing for words.
In January, as a New Year’s Resolution, I committed myself to read at least five books a month. In February, I decided to increase the goal to ten. Met it! Top of the world, Ma, and all that. With all the other irons I have in the fire, I doubt I can keep the pace, but, for now…
Kipling’s famous collection of poems dedicated to the British Tommy at their Empire’s high tide (you know, the one we’ve tried to slavishly imitate). He knew that Empire’s sun-never-sets-blood-never-dries underbelly first hand. He also knew what and who maintained it, and that hey did so shorn of any glory except what a simpatico spirit such as himself could shed on them.
And, oh, by the way, nearly every line still sings. He wasn’t just a great popular poet, but a distinctly musical one, at least the equal of Stephen Foster for rhythm, power, and ingenuity. I imagine he taught the Beatles a thing or two, if only subconsciously.
He was far more political of course than either Foster or John Lennon. He had seen what was under the underbelly as well and, cold-eyed as he often was about what was glimmering up top (where the merchant and officer classes rubbed shoulders with celebrity, royalty and each other–sound familiar?), was still more wary of collapse than of decadence. At least until the Great War came along, he was the poet laureate of the Devil he knew and this is where he found his purest form of expression. Recommended as an antidote to Gilbert and Sullivan, and vice versa.
The Story of Motown(1979)
A publishing industry quickie (they proliferated in the late seventies) that serves as a sketch biography of Berry Gordy, Jr., one of the most important men in the history of 20th century America.
It’s earned a reprint because it catches Motown at the moment of its imminent decline, which, not coincidentally, was closely related to Gordy’s increased detachment from his creation. That is was Gordy’s creation, and a near-perfect reflection of his titanic strengths and not inconsiderable weaknesses for as long as he remained at its core, Benjaminson leaves no doubt. There’s no way he can do full justice to either in the space allotted and nobody in a position to provide that space was looking for a door-stopper tome on Berry Gordy or Motown in 1979. You have to put up with the usual narrative shortcuts (many of which I spend my blog-life refuting), but this is a good, swift introduction to a subject which, like the American Revolution, we can never know enough about.
Though I’ve seen several of the movies based on his work, and they’ve all been pretty good, this is the first Grisham novel I’ve read. I’m assured by those in the know that it’s atypical and would have guessed as much without those assurances. Even here, I can attest he’s the good popular novelist I always heard he was. It’s an easy read. The only thing missing is the necessary ingredient in any pulp that seeks to provide something more than a temporary diversion: a sense of danger.
It’s not that I didn’t want anybody to die. I didn’t. Or that I wouldn’t have felt sad if they did. I would have.
It’s that I never thought they would. I’ll read more in the future for sure, but I might choose more carefully.
The Dud Avocado (1958)
Dundy is known to Elvis fans for writing Elvis and Gladys, the best book about E’s relationship with his mother, and one of the best books about him from any angle.
This is her only famous novel and it has devoted fans across the board.
Now that I’ve finally read it, I’ll call myself a semi-devoted fan. It’s an American-in-Paris tale with a twist, the twist being not so much that Dundy’s protagonist is a woman, but that she’s a generation late (check the publication date) and knows it without quite being willing to admit it, even to herself. The comedy, quite sharp and satisfying, comes from the narrator’s understanding of how self-conscious and temporary it all is, not just for her, but for everyone. Add that to a sharp, satirical eye for physical and psychological detail and the act of reading it can be judged very much like seeing Paris once upon a time. It’s something everyone should do at least once.
Whether the necessity of reading The Dud Avocado in order to feel you’ve experienced one of life’s great pleasures will fade along with the idea of Paris itself is something we will discover when that idea is gone. For now, if you can’t quite feel the vitality of the idea itself, you can at least feel the echo as you read along, chuckling where you once might have laughed out loud.
The Heat of the Day(1948)
I spend a lot of reading time in the company of good writers–the older I get the less patience I have for anyone who is less than good.
But it’s always a little shocking to find myself back in the company of a great one. The only previous novel of Bowen’s I’d read was Eva Trout. That was a long time ago and made enough of an impression that I knew I could never renew the acquaintance casually.
This one involves a strange menage-a-trois, the more interesting half of which is never consummated either physically or emotionally (hand a merely good writer that scenario and see if they can pull it off). It takes place in war-time Britain and portrays in luminous, hard-hearted detail a handsome widow’s relationship with the two men who seek the replace her husband, one a suspected spy, the other the government agent pursuing him. The plot is the plot, and a good one, but there are only three or four ways it can go, and it goes one of them. Any special notice the novel receives or deserves (and it has received and deserved quite a bit), is due to Bowen’s exquisite command of language, which is on a level with Mrs. Wharton and Henry James. If that’s your sort of thing, this is for you. If it’s not, you’ll have to be satisfied with never knowing what you’re missing.
Don’t be surprised if that includes Elizabeth Bowen having your number.
Don’t worry, though. You are hardly alone.
The One From the Other(2006)
Fifteen years after his Berlin Noir trilogy was a bit of a sensation in the world of hard-boiled crime fiction, Philip Kerr resurrected his Berlin-born detective, Bernie Gunther, in a post-war setting.
As often happens with successful pulp novelists, Kerr’s books got longer over time as his ambition grew.
As does not often happen, this one pays off. The length entails growth for a change. His post-Chandlerisms still don’t work. (Have they ever worked for anyone but Chandler?) But this one has an emotional resonance that goes beyond the milieu and the plot and touches the detective himself.
Post-War Germany as depicted here is a place where there is literally no safe harbor and Bernie Gunther’s attempt to find one ends in real tragedy. I look forward to finding out if Kerr resolved the danger Ross Macdonald–one of the few pulp writers who managed to go this far and further–identified as using up your character. MacDonald’s solution was to give his detective no dimension at all, to have him operate as a ghost in the machinery of his surroundings. Kerr has cut himself off from that possibility. Bernie Gunther now has dimension.
It will be fun finding out where Kerr took it from here.
The Unmaking of Adolf Hitler(1996)
This is the second part of Davidson’s magisterial study in political character. The title is odd on the surface since the vast bulk of this lengthy book details (some might say ad nauseam) deals with what most would consider Hitler at high tide as, step-by-step he conquered or cowed all of continental Europe from the Enligsh Channel to the suburbs of Moscow.
But Davidson’s point–which he’s not alone in making, though few have gone to such lengths or addressed the issue with this much scholarship and erudition–is that Hitler’s weakness came from the same source as his strength. That the megalomaniac is always bound to overreach because every success can only tempt him to go further.
That’s a comforting thought I suppose for those who survived him. But, of course, tyrants just as evil, rapacious and ambitious (Hitler and Mao come to mind) have died in bed with all their dreams intact (as Mao’s still is). By focusing only on Hitler’s words and deeds as they related to his accrual of first political, then military, then imperial, power, and avoiding speculation about the inner man, Davidson has certainly rendered an important service. It should make anyone who has the stomach for it want to look deeper…
Large tomes on Hitler, Stalin and Mao that promise to do just that have rested on my shelves for years.
I feel them beckoning.
The Plot Against America(2004)
Philip Roth. Hmmmm…
Good writer. I might have guessed that from the only book of his I’ve read previously which was the slight-if-engagiing Goodbye Columbus.
Then again, my attempts to read a few others of his, plus my encounters with his generation’s other ponderous heavyweights (Mailer, Updike, Bellow), had put me off this for years, so any surprises I discovered regarding this late-period novel’s crisp delivery were pleasant ones.
The main problem is that he has set the novel in an alternate universe and he’s not the man for the job, even if he assigned it to a prepubescent version of himself (named Philip Roth no less). Philip K. Dick would have known that the story here was inside Charles A. Lindbergh, the man Roth has winning the presidency in 1940 and leading America down the path of isolationism, effectively siding with Hitler in his fight against the Brits and Soviets.
It’s not one of history’s more likely what-ifs. Despite being a leading spokesman for the original America First movement, and a well-known laissez-faire attitude about the Nazis when he wasn’t praising them, Lindbergh never expressed the least interest in running for office. There were many he could have had for the asking, though the presidency wasn’t one of them. He’d have had to fight for that, so to make his parallel universe persona credible we would need to be inside him.
Without that perspective, which Dick would have known was essential and Roth doesn’t even attempt, this impeccably-written novel would go nowhere even if the author had the stomach to bring his tragedies front and center instead of assigning them to the margins. They’re still felt, but more as an exercise in mental gymnastics than a gut-punch.
Not just what if, then, but merely what if.
Wasted opportunity then. All that good writing, too. Shame that.
Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941(2013)
All of which is why I’m glad I read The Plot Against America in tandem with this history of the wrangling between the interventionists and the isolationists in the years leading up to America’s entry into WWII.
Without resorting to the usual minutiae, Olson is able to get at the essential characters of the story’s two protagonists in a way that gives them just enough dimension to see them in the human terms such history usually deny such outsized characters. Somewhat alike in their icy aloofness and relative indifference to any damage they might be doing to the people closest to them, they differed in one key aspect: Roosevelt was a thoroughly political man who accepted socialization as part of the process while Lindbergh was a thoroughly apolitical man who found himself dragged into political situations because of his enormous fame and the area of his expertise (flying) which happened to coincide with military interests that couldn’t exactly be ignored with the world on fire and America bound to play some role.
What that role would be was a question that consumed both men. Lindbergh ended up having his personal and historical reputation shattered by his belief (shared by tens of millions of Americans even after the fall of France and right up to Dec. 7, 1941) that no European war was worth what an American intervention would cost. Once the evils of National Socialism were fully exposed by its defeat, no one who had been blind to the known depredations of the thirties could expect to fully recover.
Roosevelt, on the other hand, by far the more devious of the two on matters of principle, was vaulted to near-sainthood by having his half-hearted commitment tuned into full-bore interventionism by events. (Before Dec. 7 he was all for things like conscription and Lend-Lease, but little more committed to the idea of American boys sacrificing their lives for the good of humanity than the strict isolationists Lindbergh represented, and often accused of dragging his feet by those who are always ready to commit someone else’s life to their latest cause. In other words, the political man was a political realist and the foot he kept in each camp might have ensured his reputation irrespective of Amerian’s involvement or noninvolvement, so long as neither prospect involved actually losing.)
Olson does a fine job of telling the basic story, and that job entails leaving a crucial aspect of Lindbergh’s character, his pursuit of a double-life, until the very end, where it damns him more thoroughly than even his most dubious public pronouncements (of which there was no shortage).
Whether Roosevelt himself is redeemed only by forces beyond his control or deserves full credit for such foresight as he possessed, given that it was just enough to preserve Western Civilization for a few decades past its sell-by date, is left to the eye of the beholder.
The Last Battle(1966)
The last leg (though second published) of Ryan’s epic trilogy of the Allied invasion of Europe from Normandy onwards. As the title indicates, this one is dedicated to the fall of Berlin.
The books are all classics of the New Journalism Ryan helped invent, of history and of popular literature. Though unlike the others (The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far) this one did not contribute a common phrase to the English language, it is just as thorough, just as fast-paced and just as vital. If anyone has bested his accounts of the events to which he chose to dedicate himself, I’m not aware of it and in any case, it’s unlikely any serious scholarship going forward can fail to take him into account. He might end up being the Edward Gibbon of the Reich’s defeat.
I waited far too long to read them all. Ryan’s are among the rare books I can finish at my age and feel like I’m finally a little bit closer to being educated.
John Lennon–an actual child of the working class–once sang about a working class hero being something to be. Burt Reynolds, middle class as they came (his dad was a police chief), was a Working Class Legend.
He built that legend in the seventies with a long string of good ol’ boy roles–White Lightning, Gator, The Longest Yard, Hooper, Semi-Tough, and, of course, Smokey and the Bandit, all among the most entertaining of their day and often better “social” commentaries than the Film School crowd ever managed–which belied his training (he was first spotted, and sent on to New York, by an acting teacher who was impressed with his Shakespeare).
It’s called acting for a reason. When he got a chance to stretch out, he proved himself adept at black comedy (The End), romance (Starting Over), drama. There’s no better–or trickier–performance from the seventies than his “Lewis” in Deliverance, and no better film in the justly celebrated 70s cannon. It’s not every actor who can give his breakthrough performance, and anchor an era-defining movie, playing an asshole-nobody- likes-but-you-still-don’t-want-him-to-die.
It’s not every actor who can play that part at all.
But, really, his best acting was probably his persona. That happens a lot with those select few who can manage it, and Reynolds was more impressive in this respect than even the old-time Hollywood stars because neither the business of movie making, nor the culture within which Old Hollywood operated, had anything like the hold on us during that hellish time they had even a minute earlier.
“I’m Burt Reynolds. I used to be big in the 70s,” he would tell people he just met in the nineties and beyond.
No doubt with a smile the Bandit would have appreciated.
And boy was he big in the 70s.
Based on that decade alone, he’s still the most famous attendee of my alma mater, FSU, which, being among the strangest of all state schools, has a celebrated drama school and an even more celebrated football program.
He played football, too (career was cut short by injuries). Used to see him with his entourage at the games. He couldn’t have been happier to represent us.
And we couldn’t have been happier to have him represent us.
We got Burt Reynolds, we used to like saying to all the other drama schools, with our own Bandit smile. Who you got?
I think I’m going to start calling these lengthy passages from my current reading Mini Book Reports. Here’s the first:
From Eugene Davidson’s The Unmaking of Adolph Hitler (1996)
Circa May, 1938:
The Sudeten Germans considered themselves as the prime target of discrimination–socially, economically and politically. They were forbidden on grounds of national security to work on the fortifications between the Czech borders with the Reich, nor could their enterprises bid on contracts. Thousands of Germans lost their employment in the postal services after the state was founded (NOTE: in the early 1920s) because examinations were conducted in Czech, which not many of them spoke or wrote. In 1924 a Czech minister, Jiri Stribrny, boasted that forty thousand German postal and railroad workers had been dismissed and replaced by Czechs, and Sudeten Deputy Taub pointed out to the parliamentary budget committee that seven thousand of them had been dismissed even though they had passed the language examination. Moreover the examinations included questions involving details of Czech literary history that were little known to Czechs themselves. As one Sudeten leader, Wenzel Jaksch, wrote, a railway construction foreman might be dismissed for not knowing the birth date or works of a fourth-rate Czech author, and a German employee in a cigar factory (the tobacco industry was state controlled) was expected to know the difference between the durative and iterative of a Czech verb, while Czech members of parliament often themselves failed to understand the expressions in a bill and had to ask for the German or international terminology to be sure of what they were voting for or against. All state employees were required to be proficient in Czech, and the requirement extended to notaries, court interpreters in any language, surveyors, and engineers, as well as district and municipal physicians. Licensed businesses, including taverns, had to display signs in Czech, and German could be used in dealing with the state authorities only when German speakers made up at least twenty percent of the local population. Such requirements were far more severe than those in force in Austria where Czechs had long been protesting any official restrictions on the use of their language.
The Sudetenland was the last of Adolph Hitler’s bloodless conquests, taken, like the Rhineland and Austria, “without firing a shot.” His next incursion, sixteen months later, would be into Poland, where Germans were not begging to be rescued, and resulted in the proper onset of World War II…which, as even the minimalist history laid out in the passage above demonstrates, was really just an extension and (from Hitler’s standpoint) exploitation of grievances that stretched back decades, if not centuries.
I came across this during my lunchtime cafe reading time today, and it stayed with me when I got home, probably because not a few eminent historians have been noting of late that we are quite likely at the end of the Pax Americana that Hitler’s overreach (and the feckless, though, as Davidson makes clear a few pages later, understandable, response of those ruling the previous World Order) made all but inevitable.
It is a reminder that the losers never forget and “multi” cultures are only ever imposed and papered over by force. The foundational cracks are always lying underneath, awaiting exposure.
I don’t read history to feel better about the world. I read it so I won’t be surprised by the inevitable. The periods of human peace and prosperity, such as we are living through now, tend to be brief and are always followed by one of two results:
Or Chaos…and then Tyranny.
Of course it’s possible I’m just crabby, the way a man gets when he has an unexpected week off and it rains every day and his web site gets hacked. I’ll get back to reading now.
I’m learning. This is probably the most perverse album ever released by a major star. Dylan’s previous three albums had all produced Top 40 singles (as would his next).
Despite Harding selling well, it produced no hit singles (though Jimi Hendrix later took “All Along the Watchtower” for a ride up the charts with a Cover from God), and seems to have been conceived as some kind of throwback to the days when nobody could imagine Dylan having hits of his own. You could hear it as the same kind of spitball to his rock and roll audience as “going electric” had been to his folk audience.
I’m a sucker for Dylan’s Rock and Roll Voice, not as much for his Folkie Voice.
Maybe for that reason it took me years to hear this–and this last year for it to become a go to.
Or maybe the times they’ve just a’ changed.
9) Arthur BakerGive in to the Rhythm (1991)
Baker was a big name in the early days of the remix craze. Since I’ve never been into remixes, I’m not sure why or how I came to have this laying around for years. This is the first time I’ve listened to it in ages–maybe the third time ever. Mostly, I like it without loving it, a reaction I often have to music that was made more for dance-floors than headphones. I wonder, though, if a single side ever sunk in, whether it would unlock the key to the rest? As it stands, I’d rather listen to Madonna remixes, which are the only ones I’ve ever found revelatory.
8) Various ArtistsLouisiana Roots: The Jay Miller R&B Legacy (1998)
Jay Miller was an avowed segregationist who nonetheless ran an integrated studio throughout the early years of rock and roll in the Jim Crow South and recorded a number of classic r&b sides of which this is a generous selection. Like a lot of off-shoot projects that acquire a gut-bucket reputation based on the idea that relatively obscure music must be tougher than what reaches the mainstream, this one has more nuance and a lighter touch than you might expect. I can’t say much of it is transcendent but it’s consistently enjoyable and, given the predilections of Miller’s politics, a testimony to mankind’s thoroughgoing perversity. You’d never guess how he felt based on the sounds he made!
7) Harold Melvin and the Blue NotesIf You Don’t Know Me By Now: Best of (1995)
One of the great collections of 70s soul. They could probably sustain one twice as long, but, given the number of long (12″) cuts, this is still generous and a fully realized journey. Of course, Teddy Pendergrass is the main show, but the Blue Notes were also the recipient of some of Gamble and Huff’s most startling arrangements (I wrote about “Wake Up Everybody” here), including “I Miss You” which, in its full version is almost unbearable, coming as it did at the moment when Black America seemed within sight of achieving a level of integration that transcended mere law and politics. You can still hear that possibility whispering close here. Once in a while, you can hear it shouting…and wonder just how it was we missed out on the Promised Land and came up with this unholy mess instead.
6) John LennonLennon Legend: The Very Best of (1997)
Lennon’s first two solo albums stand on their own and his box set isn’t a slog. The album released just before his death remains hard to hear through the haze of murder and grief it seemed designed to disperse. Hence, when I want to hear him without the Beatles, this is usually where I go. It doesn’t all work. As agitprop “Imagine” gets by on its melody (and the fact Lennon had a sense of humor about how far he was from living out its ideals), but his voice is just about all that redeems “Instant Karma” or “Cold Turkey.”
That aside, this is still a fine document of a man caught out of time. Lennon was the Beatle who most believed in all that “All You Need Is Love” stuff. It’s not surprising that he found the 70s a nasty shock, or that–in interviews and on record–he kept reaching back to something he could never quite find. It’s also not a surprise that, with “Nobody Told Me,” a posthumous hit that was his strongest side in years, he seemed to realize he would never find what he was looking for, even if he kept a phalanx of bodyguards and lived to be a hundred.
5) Various ArtistsBrown Eyed Soul: Vols. 1-3 (1997)
I’m counting these as a single entry, because that’s how I listen to this set, one of Rhino’s best, and that’s how I hear it. As a single experience.
“The Sound of East L.A.” is the music Chicano audiences listened to from the late fifties to the early seventies and someone took care in the sequencing and programming for each volume here to reflect an experience that’s of a piece–and is only enhanced when you listen them all over the course of an afternoon or evening or (like me) in the early a.m. How close it is the actual listening experience of those who lived in those communities in the time covered I can’t say (though I haven’t heard anyone complain). But the mix is beguiling–heavy on off-key doo wop, light soul (think Brenton Wood), garage bands (think Cannibal and the Headhunters and Thee Midniters, both local heroes) and slow-groove funk (think the mellow side of War)–and if it catches you in the right mood, you can find yourself wanting to be part of any world that would respond to this music as though it were the key of life.
Well worth tracking down for those who still think about acquiring music in some form more permanent than a microchip.
Pick to Click: “The Town I Live In” where Thee Midniters make like a west coast Rascals…and, for those three minutes at least, concede nothing.
4) Brenda LeeI’m in the Mood for Love: Classic Ballads (1998)
To say Brenda is underrepresented in the CD era is to concede that the sun rises in the east. This collection barely scratches the surface of her greatness as a ballad singer. But it’s what we have, and, to quote Spencer Tracy “what’s there is cherce.” It’s highlighted by killer original versions of “The Crying Game” and “Always on My Mind” and includes cuts from throughout the sixties, arranged out of sequence so that you can’t miss how centered her style was–how much 1968 was connected to 1960 in her voice if nowhere else. A thousand nuances, then, and always unmistakably her. It’s a perfect album and my only complaint is there could and should be another dozen like it.
3) Robert JohnsonThe Complete Recordings: Centennial Collection (2011)
The essence of Robert Johnson at this distance is how much his voice calls into question whether the arrow of defeat and humiliated pride that’s been driven deep in the heart of Black America can ever finally be withdrawn.
And if the question is left only to his voice, the answer will always be no.
That’s as true on a supposed novelty number like “They’re Red Hot” as it is on “Hellhound on My Trail” or “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,” which even the nonbelievers can’t pretend are jokes.
2) Various ArtistsThe Disco Box (1999)
A fine overview that isn’t quite what it might have been. Disco can sustain four CDs and then some as a listening experience (as well as a dancing one). But the compilers at Rhino were always historically minded, so a pedestrian cut like Carol Douglas’s “Doctor’s Orders” is bound to take precedence over records that were real grabbers simply because it was a touchstone of the form’s early days and a big hit. There’s a bit more of that here than I’d prefer as there’s no reason for a box of this significance to have any filler.
Even so, it sustains almost in spite of itself. The form was always more than its critics acknowledged so a run of soft spots (usually chant records or metronomic “mood” instrumentals) is inevitably followed by a commensurate handful of irresistible highs. And, often as not, the chant records are as great as “Keep it Comin’ Love” and the instrumentals are as non-metronomic as “Fifth of Beethoven.” Besides, with due respect to Barry White* and the white disco of “Dancing Queen” and “December 1963” (all absent here) and short-shrifting the Bee Gees (maybe understandable given they’re not exactly lacking appreciation elsewhere, including from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame which has ignored, say, Barry White), the form’s very greatest vocals are here: Vicki Sue Robinson on “Turn the Beat Around,” Candi Staton on “Young Hearts Run Free,” Jimmy Ellis of the Traamps on “Disco Inferno” and Evelyn “Champagne” King on “Shame,” which in its 12″ version, (not presented here–another complaint is they always settled for the single) calls out the same questions Robert Johnson does…and gives back the same responses.
Outside his two big hits, “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride” Edgar’s reach mostly exceeded his grasp. The fine bands he assembled tended to be stronger than his writing–just not quite strong enough to overcome the lack of inspiration in Winter’s own lyrics and singing (Dan Hartman was another story).
Still, he and his group had an interesting niche–a rare white funk band who retained a foothold in the burgeoning concept of Classic Rock.
And kudos to the programmer.
You could do a lot worse than close down a “last ten” with this. Speaking of arrangements….
Til next time!
*NOTE: White is represented as an orchestra leader, but not as a vocalist.
“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.
“If I Can Dream” 1968 Artist: Elvis Presley Writer: Walter Edward Brown
The story behind “If I Can Dream” is well known.
Elvis Presley was filming a Christmas special in the summer of 1968 and the project had taken on a life of its own. Conceived as a traditional holiday special where Elvis would croon seasonal standards and cavort with the usual assortment of anonymous lovelies, much in the spirit of his increasingly lifeless movie career, it had turned out….unexpectedly.
Somehow, in the hands of producer Steve Binder, the genius behind The T.A.M.I. Show and much of the best rock and roll performance television footage of the era, with increasing support from Elvis himself, it had become something very different. When it aired late in ’68, the special would revive Elvis’ career and vault straight into the pantheon of his career-defining moments.
Having lost control of every other aspect of the project, Elvis’ infamous manager, Colonel Tom Parker, tried to put his foot down on the only thing left hanging loose–the show’s ending.
The Colonel wanted–insisted upon by most accounts–a Christmas carol.
Binder, aware of the world on fire around them, thought Elvis needed something more.
Walter Earl Brown, not an especially inspired songwriter before or after this moment, was commissioned to come up with something. This time, he was inspired. The lyrics and melody were hardly works of genius, but they were solid, thoughtful, inspirational, plenty strong enough to feed Elvis’ growing belief in himself, the project, and the possibilities the special had begun to represent.
It was a song to make him relevant again.
He must have known it at once. It summoned up Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the March on Washington in 1963 and fed into Bobby Kennedy’s I dream things that never were and ask why not? moment. It was a natural sequel to Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” itself a self-conscious response to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” all of which might have been unofficial sequels to Elvis’ own 1957 reading of Thomas Dorsey’s “Peace in the Valley,” which dated from the 1930’s and had been composed in response to the war clouds then gathering over Europe.
If a song that evoked all that didn’t bring him up to date, nothing would.
One could argue that the rest of the special might have done the trick anyway.
It had its share of other iconic moments.
There was Elvis, opening the show in black leather, growling If you’re looking for trouble, you came to the right place, as though the space between 1956 and 1968 had collapsed in on itself.
There he was, in front of a wall of dancers paying homage to himself in Jailhouse Rock.
There he was, being a swingin’ little guitar man, in a song he managed to make sound autobiographical even if he had never come anywhere near picking out songs in Panama City bars.
And, most of all, there he was, working up a sweat with an informal, impromptu band, inventing the Unplugged format that wouldn’t take full flight until a decade after his death.
But there’s no evidence, then or now, that any of that would have put him back in the one place he could no longer afford not to be–high on the record charts.
Whether he heard “If I Can Dream” as the answer to that problem we’ll never know. It’s one of the many questions no one thought to ask, and part of the reason Elvis the Man remains an enigma.Another reason the Man remains an enigma is because the crit-illuminati have never quite got a handle on the Artist.
“If I Can Dream” is almost always described–when it is “described” at all (as opposed to being referred to or glopped upon)–as a song of uplift, a natural fit for Elvis the gospel singer.
Which isn’t even half-true.
The song is a song of uplift.
Elvis’ interpretation of the song is anything but.
He no more knew how to walk a straight line through “If I Can Dream” than he had known how to move like anybody else when he hit a television stage for the first time on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show in the early months of ’56. The key to Elvis at his best, from first to last, was that he looked at a confined conjunction of time and/or space–a TV stage, a recording studio, the length of a record, the meaning available in a lyric–and imagined it differently than anyone else did.
It was one reason Sam Phillips took such a long time getting a handle on him (a year or more, lest we forget–not Phillips’ usual modus operandi). And one reason Elvis could never take anything for granted, never really be at ease, no matter how far he rose, how much material success he achieved.
Most Big Thinkers have concluded it was the poverty–the fear it could return at any moment–that kept Elvis insecure, on edge, in need of a constant fix.
There’s not much to support that. From everything I’ve read, Elvis, once he made it, was generally contemptuous of the idea he wouldn’t keep making it.
The aw-shucks ritual, where he wondered aloud in front of microphones whether it would all be waiting for him if he had to go away for a while (like to the Army), was nothing more than that. Ritual. Self-deprecation. Recognizable to most of his core audience as a “Gee-I’m-no-better-than-the-next-fella routine,” delivered Southern American style.
I don’t think too many people who didn’t write journalism for a living really bought it.
What he clearly did worry about was whether he would fit into the next space–the next hole in the time-space continuum that he, and he alone, had opened up in American culture, but which, once he had punched through, could not stop expanding, or perhaps simply running way from the latest, fastest version of itself.
How many times can a man re-invent himself, after all…and still be a man?
Same for countries, as Elvis, too, must have known by the time he was deciding exactly what to do with the show-closer that had been handed him a day after Brown was commissioned to write it.
There were plenty of roads left to travel when Elvis confronted “If I Can Dream” for the first time, but he didn’t need to be any Master of Prescience to know that this turning point was special–that it wasn’t just another fork in the road.
So, faced with a song that fit squarely into existing traditions–he could take it as uplift (like King’s speech), as cautionary tale (like Dylan), as a means to look beyond the stars (like Kennedy), as the running of a secret tide that won’t be turned back (like Cooke) or even as an excuse to give in to the moment and re-orient the Protestant Reformation, with its promise of moving man’s Golden Age (which America now represented full-blown), from the past to the future, and simply realizing it in the Present–what was a poor boy to do?
The song would have fit any of those other interpretations. And the relative few who have taken it on since have chosen one of those conventional paths.
They’ve had to.
They weren’t Elvis.
Elvis, unlike anyone else, had a choice.
Standing square in the middle of 1968, the most volatile year in American history since the end of the Civil War, standing there, according to many, as a curiously moribund icon, waiting for his wax statue, with his place as a permanently employed Entertainer set out neatly and securely before him, he did what he always did at a crisis….the unexpected.
He seized the song by the throat.
And he didn’t let it go.
You could listen a long time and miss just how he went about it–or even become fully aware that he had done it at all.
It took me until the conclusion of the fine Elvis mini-series in 2005, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers, before I heard it myself.
But I first heard it here…
…which is where I first heard a lot of Elvis. (Bought it for my mother for the Christmas of 1978. She liked it, liked his gospel better, let me keep it in my room, where the only working record player was and where she could hear it anyway. I took requests, but she didn’t place many. I figure it was because I played it often enough without prompting…but I’ll leave all that for my anniversary re-post, come tomorrow. Anyway, when I left for college in the fall of 1980, I took it with me. No sense leaving it in a house with no record player. I told her if she ever got one she could have it back. She smiled and said she knew. We both knew she would never ask for it back, even in the unlikely event she bought a record player.)
It was a four album set–my first box.
“If I Can Dream” sat at the top of the last side. Near as I’ve been able to tell, the version was the one heard here.
By the time he cut this, or any version, of the song, Elvis had already made his famous statement that he would never record another song he didn’t believe in (a clear shot at the movie soundtracks, the worst of which contained the only songs he’d ever not believed in, though, to be fair, by 1968, there has been a lot of them–enough, at any rate, to make a man doubt even the most fundamental truths about himself).
There was little more soundtrack material in his future and, by his lights and mine, I think he kept his promise, even in the face of constant reassurance from rock’s burgeoning crit-illuminati that they would love him again if he’d only forget what he–or his fans–wanted and live up to their dreams instead.
All that might have taken more courage than we know. Perhaps even more than he knew when the made the promise, not to himself, but out loud, to an audience of insiders he must have hoped would hold his feet to the fire–or at least allow him to continually remind himself that someone, at least, was watching, perhaps even waiting for him to quit his own promise.
Who knows what it was really like, in Elvis World?
If I could have his ear for a moment now, though, the question I’d ask, is whether, by the time he made his soon to be famous promise, he already knew what he was going to do with the song?
Because it was not a song that invited the interpretation he gave it.
It was not a song that was asking to be grabbed by the throat.
Commitment would have been enough.
Elvis was a non-pareil vocalist. He could always do things no one else could do, form connections no one else could form, build bridges no one else could build.
“If I Can Dream” was a good enough song, he could have taken the easy way out–any of several forms of reassurance or what’s-this-life-really-all-about wistfulness that the lyric made available and the melody reinforced. He could have done any of the things such songs are almost inherently meant to do, and got away with it.
We’d be none the wiser.
It might still have been a hit.
I’d almost bet it would have been a bigger hit–#1 maybe, instead of #12.
If he had chosen not to invest it with a particular kind of anger, the only person who would have known, would have been him. We don’t have to speculate whether anyone else would have found that quality in it, because, even with his example before them, no one else has.
If he had chosen not to sing, in any version you hear, a line like the answer’s gonna come, somehow, not exactly with a sneer in his voice, but with no hint of a plea either, would we know what we had missed?
If it’s possible now to hear it rather as a demand, delivered in the voice of a man who is tired of his life’s worth of New Testament style asking and has replaced himself, instead, with an Old Testament Prophet demanding–knowing full well that the change cannot be walked away from, either by him or any audience he might command, then or in the future–then it’s only because he made it possible.
You can still choose not to hear it.
No one, not even Elvis, can make that sort of demand and expect it to be heard by all. It is enormous after all, the very idea of it.
And Elvis was the only man left standing in American life by the summer of 1968 who could have made it.
Left as a dream–as the series of questions contained within the lyrics–and delivered with the tried and true delicacy of “Crying in the Chapel,” the only Top Ten hit he’d had since the Beatles arrived in America (and that recorded years before, just after he came out of the Army), it might have been that natural #1 I mentioned. Same for the careful phrasing and straightforward empathy of “In the Ghetto” which would return him to the Top Ten the following year.
But it wouldn’t have been true.
Not coming from the heart of 1968 it wouldn’t.
Coming from that place–and coming from Elvis Presley–only Old Testament anger would do.
It was his dream after all, that was falling apart at his feet in 1968.
Oh, yes, others had dreamed it, too. By the millions.
And better men than Elvis had called upon the dream in the years since. We know they were better men because so many have told us so. It isn’t hard, in America, to be a better man than a Tennessee hillbilly.
Only he had made the dream common, though. Only he had brought it within what seemed such easy reach when he walked into those recording studios, or strode those television stages, in the mid-fifties, and made it sound like everything fit. Made it sound like rhythm and blues and country were really one thing (why, hadn’t blacks and hillbillies always gotten along?…playing to teenagers no less?….well, sure they had!). And not only that, but Tin Pan Alley and gut-bucket gospel and white church music and light opera and show tunes and “Old Shep” could be thrown right in there, too.
Just like everybody had suspected, right along.
Why once a Tennessee hillbilly showed it could be done, wasn’t it obvious that it was an idea whose time had simply come?
On the surface, there was never any need to acknowledge Elvis, the teenage truck driver from Nowheresville, had seen past everyone else, even the black ministers fueling the Civil Rights movement.
Underneath, everyone knew.
Underneath, It was like John Lennon said.
“Before Elvis, there was nothing.”
Like a lot of what John Lennon said, it was utter nonsense on its face. Also, like more than a little of what John Lennon said, it was true without being anyway factual.
Underneath, without anyone needing to do a white paper on it, Elvis–and no one else–had called forth the most dangerous and exhilarating parts of the good old, American Dream.
What if our differences could be laid aside for a bit?
What if we could….dance together?
Standing in Los Angeles, in the burning hot summer of 1968, Elvis could not have missed knowing what everyone else knew–that the world he had dreamed into being, the one where we might find out what was possible once it was proven we could dance together, the world that transcended the politics which had put boundaries around everyone from John Adams to Martin Luther King, was crashing down around him, accompanied by a mocking chorus of history’s oldest rhyme–mayhem.
And he had just been handed a song called “If I Can Dream.”
There was a choice to be made and he made it.
He sang it angry–he sang it in the voice of a man who was pleading for everyone around him to stop and take a look at what they were throwing away.
And he sang it knowing no one would listen. Knowing that even his own future self wouldn’t listen–because his own self wouldn’t be able to bear it any more than anyone else could bear it.
He closed those endless concerts that stretched on and on into what remained of his future with “The Impossible Dream” or “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You.” If he’d tried that with “If I Can Dream”–and put into it what he put into it the one time he did close with it–he’d have been dead in a year.
Dead because he’d have known by then what we all know now–that the Dream had died on his watch. That we would never walk away from 1968 That he was, after all, a prophet not for this time, but for another time–the one that will be born out of what we’re watching die around us now.
One that will be worthy of an ice cream suit, covering a man who still moved like nobody else.
….If we’re lucky.
(NOTE: Tomorrow, on the 40th anniversary of Elvis’ death, I’ll repost the lengthy reminiscence of that day which I originally posted here on the 35th anniversary.)