THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Spring 2019, Countdown)

10) Louis Armstrong: An American Icon (1998)

One good theory of American music (okay, mine, but that’s not the only reason I like it), is that white music tends to preserve order and black music tends to challenge or disrupt it. The over-arching geniuses of the twentieth century’s three fundamental American music movements (it’s too constricting to call them genres or even styles) all achieved their preeminence by complicating this theory to the point of obliteration. What Elvis did for rock & roll and James Brown did for hip hop, Louis Armstrong did for jazz and this set concentrates on the orderly side. The brilliance of his 20s-era playing and early 30s-era singing is mostly reined in over three discs that cover the rest of his career (a later live version of “Black and Blue” proves he could smooth the rough edges off of anything), but that only goes to show how far genius can take you. Not the first Armstrong I’d give somebody who didn’t know what he was about, but it fills an essential niche.

9) Various Artists: The Funk Box (2000)

Speaking of James Brown, he kicks off this 4-disc set from Hip-O with a couple of early 70s tracks that prove just how elemental and elementary his basic vision was. Everybody else spent the next decade trying to catch up and, while there’s plenty of fine music here, it sort of falls between the cracks. Apparently, the licensing was limited to a couple of labels so too much that’s essential is missing for it to be a definitive history of Funk as it reached the mainstream. And, unlike the label-specific What It Is!, it’s not quirky enough to amount to an eccentric vision. Really good then, no weak tracks. But I find it a little four-square in the matter of representing funk’s reach, and a little meager in representing the power of its full punch.

8) Cyndi Lauper: Twelve Deadly Cyns…and Then Some. (1994)

Cyndi Lauper sang like she had been put in the world to disprove my main theory: white music that challenges and disrupts everything. One of the great 80s comps (and one of the few that can stand with the great 60s and 70s comps), a concept album made from a conceptual career, beginning with a reimagining of her already incendiary Blue Angel-era cover of Gene Pitney’s (yes, already incendiary) “I’m Gonna Be Strong” and winding its way through America’s turn to imperial darkness to arrive at a sadder, wiser remake of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” and “Come on Home.” Nobody ever swore she’d “take it like a man” with more conviction. It still lifts me.

7) Otis Redding: Pain In My Heart (1964)

I was able to get hold of a box set of Otis Redding’s complete LPs thanks to some gift certificates. This was his first and the first time I’d heard it complete. It reminded me of the Beatles’ first UK release from 1962: shafts of brilliance shooting out from a hardworking set of principles. Should it be a surprise that he was of yet only a functional rock and roller but already a brilliant ballad singer? Well, I can’t stay I was too surprised. Either way, I’m looking forward to the rest.

6) The Rolling Stones: It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (1974)

The Stones didn’t need to wait for the 80s. They gave up on the world right here. Not that the better half of it can’t still knock your teeth out if you aren’t on your guard. Who thought they could pull off “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”? Surely not anybody who remembered them trying to take on “My Girl.”

5) Various Artists: Doo Wop From Dolphin’s of Hollywood Vols. 1 & 2. (1991)

Two volumes, forty-nine sides, dozens of lost gems, not a hit in sight. Proof of how deep the ocean was, once upon a time.

4) John Mellencamp: Words & Music (2004)

Possessing nothing like the vocal power or ingenuity of Al Green or Patty Loveless, Mellencamp sold more records than either with a similar act of faith in a Fallen Land. What Green did for Black America and Loveless for Appalachia, Mellencamp did for Heartland America–pointed a finger and told the truth. This mixes his occasional didacticism with his frequent populism and his pervasive romanticism over two discs that get the shape and size of his career just about right. The remastering makes it sound and feel like he and his band are sitting next to you, which suits their ethos just fine and gives this a disorienting feel the match the times being transcribed.

Stick it in the CD player and drive.

3) Ohio Players: Funk on Fire–The Mercury Anthology (2002)

Industrial funk from Mellencamp’s Heartland, a generation earlier. Outside of the go-rillas you know so well (“Fire,” “Who’d She Coo?,” “Love Rollercoaster”) it still strikes a match because their great theme was celebrating black women as the epitome of desire–and, in “Far East Mississippi,” recognizing how deeply interconnected such celebrations are with  the worst forms of oppression. They don’t ‘low no skinny dippin’ in far east Mississippi you know.

And we all know the reason.

2) Prince: The HIts/The B-Sides (1993)

He made a lot of good albums, but his ethos still lends itself to a generous comp. This is that. Something always jumps out and this time it was “Alphabet Street.” Barely remembered among the stream of radio riches here, it would have been a career definer for almost anyone else. He was too narcissistic to really celebrate anyone but himself, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t learn a lot from the Ohio Players and James Brown and, who knows, maybe even Pops Armstrong and John Mellencamp. Cyndi Lauper certainly learned a lot from him: everything except how to guard herself. This is the sound of a genius unto himself, letting us in on secrets a more open-hearted man would have taken to his grave. He’d have made a great spy.

1) Manfred Mann: The Best of

I spent years trying to get hold of this. It was one of those easily available yet somehow elusive collections: I ordered it at least three previous times only to meet with “just sold the last one” or “sorry we sent you the wrong version” or “why won’t this disc play.” The curse is now over!

And the verdict: Spottier than it should have been. 26 tracks and no “With God On Our Side” (where they wasted Dylan)? No “John Hardy”? Come on!  But the dozen best that are here still make me ask why exactly the Hollies, Moody Blues, Dave Clark Five, Zombies, are all in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Mann, who made great records with three different bands for more than a decade, and Mike Jones, who could sing every one of those bands under the table, have never even been nominated?

On that note:

Til next time.

GOING FORWARD….

Rock and Roll America…Come on in.

As most of you know by now, I have started 2019 with a couple of new 60’s-oriented ventures. There will now be a monthly column at Rick Shoemaker’s blog Sixties Music Secrets, devoted to all things 60’s, and a minimum of one or two posts a week at Medium under the publication Tell It Like It Was, where I will post stories under my own name as well as occasional collaborations with Neal Umphred, Lew Shiner and (possibly) others.

REMEMBER: Everything you do to support these efforts helps me and my writing career. EVERYTHING. That means linking, reading, clapping, liking, bookmarking, following, spreading the word to family and friends who engage social media and ESPECIALLY becoming a fellow member on Medium (a mere $5 a month). These efforts will also help Rick, Lew and Neal in some measure–anything that leads to greater readership and a higher online profile benefits us all.

For now, my plan is as follows:

Anything NOT related to the 60’s (or at least 1955-1975), will continue to be posted EXCLUSIVELY HERE.

SOME things related to the 60’s will be posted here first. They may or may not then ALSO be posted at Tell It Like It Was.

Any content provided to Sixties Music Secrets will be exclusive over there, but I will ALWAYS post an announcement and a link here.

Content posted at Medium may or may not appear here first (it may even be an older post). If it is subsequently re-posted at Tell It Like It Was, it will ALWAYS have some new content (sometimes minimal, sometimes extensive), and I will ALWAYS post an announcement and a link here.

Some posts will be exclusive to Tell It Like It Was.

The columns I post at Sixties Music Secrets will relate to the 60’s in some way, shape or fashion, but may not be confined to music.

The stories I post at Tell It Like It Was will relate to the music of the period 1955-1975, with an emphasis on the 60’s

I hope that what I’m bringing to these projects (besides whatever skill or insight I have as a writer) is a small but fiercely loyal audience, which now has its mission statement.

More soon, but for now, help us hang on to Rock and Roll America and…

MAKE ME LOOK GOOD PEOPLE!

 

THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Winter 2018, Countdown)

10) Poison: Greatest Hits 1986 – 1996 (1996)

Merry Christmas everybody! i like my hair metal straight with no arty pretensions. In the wake of punk, especially, hair metal bands had one refreshing quality. They made no bones about being in it for the groupies. About half of this soars and the rest doesn’t sink so low that it amounts to more than a minor distraction.

9) David Bowie: Hunky Dory (1971)

I don’t really have a go-to David Bowie album but, if I did, this early entry might fit the bill. The man could write hooks and, over the course of a mere album (especially a good one from when he was giving everything he had to put himself over), his voice doesn’t wear thin. Plus, with “Changes” he was already signalling how far he could take fake naivete, which was only as far as it could go.

8) Gary Lewis & the Playboys: The Complete Liberty Singles (2009)

What an aesthetic! A plastic concept were Gary and the boys to be sure…but they made some fine pop records from their earliest days. And, as I had not noticed on a previous listen to two, Gary kept getting better as the sixties and his popularity waned in unison. This lays out the whole story so, along with stalwarts like “Just My Style” and “Little Miss Go-Go” you get an extra disc’s worth of lost sixties’ pop that reminds you just how good you had to be in those days to not get lost . Then there’s genuinely weird-but-catchy stuff like “I Saw Elvis Presley Last Night” which Lewis apparently wrote after seeing Elvis the night before.

7) Bob Dylan: Live 1964 Concert at Philharmonic Hall, The Bootleg Series Vol. 6 (2004)

This has musical value. It’s a good, typical concert from Dylan’s folkie phase. The big difference is that it’s near the end–the moment just before the Voice of His Generation stabbed his original audience in the eye by going Rock and Roll.

Here, Dylan the master showman has his New York audience eating out of his hand, hanging on every sung or spoken word. You can still hear and feel the spell he cast. The highlight comes at the top of the second disc, right after he’s returned from the intermission to do his nine hundredth great version of “Talkin’ World War III Blues.”

This is the one where he mocks the Shangri-Las and Martha and the Vandellas and his audience laughs right along.

Or is it the about-to-be-left-behind audience he’s mocking?

People argue about this, but it’s worth remembering that when the Voice of His Generation wanted to name-check “inauthentic” pop stars he had previously tended to use Fabian, the son of a Philly beat cop, who, like Martha Reeves and Mary Weiss, had fought his way out of tougher circumstances–and tougher neighborhoods–than Robert Zimmerman’s.

Right after that Joan Baez comes on and kills the buzz.

There’s no album that better explains the anger some of Dylan’s audience felt when he “betrayed” them a few months later (first at Newport, then all over the world). Listening to this, there is no reason to believe the voice of their generation would ever be anything but completely at one with them.

6) Mary Wells: Looking Back 1961 – 1964 (1993)

Invaluable set from Motown’s first big solo star. “My Guy” wasn’t all that typical of her style, but it shows just how many directions she might have taken had she not made the fateful decision to become the first Motown star to walk away. I don’t know if she needs a two-disc set, but she certainly needs more than one. One of history’s great “what-ifs” sure, but there’s more than enough here to justify a bigger place in the pantheon, at Motown and elsewhere.

5) War: Outlaw (1982)

The greatest band of the 70s was mostly a spent force by the time this came out. But the two strongest tracks, “Outlaw” and “Cinco de Mayo” were on a par with their best, and you can hear bits and pieces elsewhere of what might have been a new vision, had they still been young and hungry.

4) Jr. Walker and the All Stars: Nothin’ But Soul, The Singles 1962-1983 (1994)

A great journey through the party funk of the mid-sixties, backed up with Junior’s plaintive vocals once somebody figured out his ragged-but-right timbre could work on ballads. Twenty years worth of never losing what he had, with the highlight being perhaps Motown’s great lost single. Tell me again why he’s not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

3) Lynyrd Skynyrd: Nuthin’ Fancy (1975)

There are people who still think this–the second greatest band of the 70s third LP–is their weakest. If that’s true, it’s a measure of just how great they were. There weren’t ten bands in the decade who made one as good. And not one where the lead singer would start off an album by writing a fierce ode to gun control and, without taking a breath, dream of shooting down his “Cheatin’ Woman” exactly one track later.

2) Fats Domino: The Fats Domino Jukebox (2002)

I finally broke down and bought a single disc of Fats’ best on CD. The old two record set from Imperial is still the best “short” compilation but this does a nice job of getting to the highlights, beginning with the true dawn of rock ‘n’ roll. Perhaps because I’ve been doing some side projects (more word soon!) that turn a strong spotlight on rock and roll’s first decade, the most intriguing track this time around was “The Valley of Tears” a straight country record from 1957 which went top twenty pop and #2 R&B and represented everything Nashville feared might be riding over the hill if they didn’t get the white rock and rollers under control. They shut down crossover within a year, even if it meant telling country stations not to play Elvis and the Everly Brothers. And that’s exactly what it meant. These days, and not coincidentally, country, pop and r&b are all dead things. Except when you reach back.

1)  Various Artists: A Very Special Christmas (1987)

One of the great rock and roll Christmas albums. At what is probably the low point, Bon Jovi pulls off a credible “Back Door Santa.” Elsewhere, everyone from RUN-DMC to Bono to Alison Moyet to (gasp) Sting go to the limit. And there are tracks that go beyond the limit: Bruce Springsteen (live, where’s he’s always best) managing a version of “Merry Christmas Baby” that escapes the long shadows of Charles Brown’s original melancholy and Elvis Presley’s cataclysmic transformation to inject an improbably merry vibe that’s just as valid; John Mellencamp’s re-orienting “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” to an Indiana farmhouse; Bryan Adams’ blasting through “Run, Run Rudolph”; and, to close things down, Stevie Nicks, who believes in witchcraft if she believes in anything, giving a definitive reading of “Silent Night,” the stateliest devotional hymn on earth, proving yet again that God will always move in a mysterious way.

Merry Christmas to all my readers!

…Til next time.

I GIVE MYSELF UP TO THE ROAD…THE ROAD GIVES BACK

Last week I made the four-hour drive to Monroeville, Alabama (home town of Harper Lee and Truman Capote) to meet my sister and her boyfriend for a holiday reading of Capote’s short story “A Christmas Memory,” (which I didn’t mind telling the folks, including the actress who One-Woman-Showed the story so beautifully, was the subject of the essay that won me the Freshman English Award for 1979 at Chipola Junior College, which sits a little less than half-way between me and Monroeville). It was a lovely experience in itself–the reading takes place every year in the courthouse where Lee’s father practiced law, which was meticulously copied for the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. A good time was had by all.

But, for me, the arrival is mostly an excuse for the journey. For whatever reason, I never feel any music has proved itself fully until it proves itself on the road.

Here’s what proved itself last week:

Aftermath (UK Version) The Rolling Stones (1966)

I’ve always loved the American version of Aftermath, always thought it was the peak of the Brian Jones years and the first time Mick had his act together for an entire album. Imagine my disappointment a decade or so back, when I managed to score all the Stones’ original UK albums at Best Buy for bargain prices (if you want to know how fast the world moves, try and imagine anything like that happening at Best Buy, or any other box store now–such experiences have gone the way of searching the 45 and cutout bins at Woolworth’s and in less than half the time) and discovered that the UK version of my favorite from the Stone’s early period was missing “Paint It Black” not to mention the perfect running order of the US version, climaxing with the eleven minutes of “Going Home” one of the all time LP closers. Plus, the great, disorienting American cover–so in tune with the album’s sound–had been re-replaced by the much more generic cover it had replaced in the first place.

Aftermath (US Version) The Rolling Stones (1966)

I listened through dutifully, of course. Then I dismissed it to the shelves, where it had remained ever since. If I wanted to hear Aftermath, I got out my old US version on vinyl.

But a funny thing happened a few years ago. My replacement CD player–in every respect but one superior to the really old one that died–was supposed to be a stop-gap until I could afford a good one. Still waiting for that day (the cheap ones that are still readily available. in places like Best Buy, don’t have a cable hookup compatible with my head-phones…which are not cheap). In the meantime, I discovered the one respect in which my newer (still not very new) player was at a disadvantage compared to my old one.

Won’t play my Rolling Stones’ CDs before Sticky Fingers. (NOTE: From Sticky Fingers on, I have everything through Emotional Rescue, but issued on the Stones’ own label, rather than ABKCO and hence playable–what this means, in practice, is that I’ve been listening to a lot of 70s Stones, about which, perhaps more later. I also have one of their later albums. Talk about things that don’t get played.)

It also won’t play my Kinks’ albums and a few others (like ABKCO’s fine Animals’ comp). Annoying. I really need to find a solution.

Meanwhile, the one place I can hear those albums (other than my computer, which I’m not fond of using as a listening station–I have enough trouble concentrating as it is!) is in my car.

And I usually listen on long trips. Which I don’t take much anymore. You know, due to being broke.

But when I do take trips, I choose the music pretty carefully. Quite often, I take things I think might deserve some sort of second chance or closer attention than I’ve been willing or able to give them previously.

This time…Aftermath.

And Between the Buttons, which I’ve never really been able to get into–and which ABKCO re-released in its American version anyway.

But first…Aftermath.

In its UK version.

Which, I learned on the back roads of southwest Georgia and southeast Alabama, is great!

I’m still not sure I can ever make the leap and completely give myself over to an Aftermath which sticks “Goin’ Home” in the middle and denies the listener “Paint it Black,” but what’s there definitely makes its own statement…and makes me want to get that good CD player real soon!

After that, I was excited for Between the Buttons. And, just like always, I stayed excited through what used to be the first side.

Between the Buttons The Rolling Stones (1967)

After that, my attention gradually wandered. Just like always. I’m still not sure why. Is it because that’s about the time Brian Jones transitioned from inspiration to “problem?” Is it merely coincidence that I’ve still never heard the followup, Their Satanic Majesties Request (their last with Jones fully on board) in its entirety? I’ll want to correct that oversight some day, but you can see where it’s not a priority when it’s unlikely I can listen to it anywhere but the car.

Meanwhile…man was Aftermath a revelation!

Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player Elton John (1973)

And I will admit that Between the Buttons was still more engaging than Elton John’s Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player, which seemed too cute by half, starting with the almost great title. Has any piano player working a joint where he was likely to be shot at ever said “only” instead of “just?” Just asking.

Otherwise, Elton’s usual mixed bag. It did yield “Elderberry Wine” and “Midnight Creeper” which were new to me and hardly nothing. But south Alabama does not offer a lot of distractions. It’s not hard to concentrate on the music when it’s giving something back and, except for those two, and the inevitable radio classics (“Daniel” and “Crocodile Rock,” which I confess, though still fine, are not the most inevitable) I found it hard not to let my mind wander off through the pines.

Which brought me a little past the half-way point of the outward journey and this…

The Essential Tom T. Hall: The Story Songs (1988)

There was no problem with attention spans here. It’s quiet as death, first story to last. I’ve had the vinyl version for years but just recently acquired the CD. Been waiting for a chance to be alone with it. South Alabama seemed as good a place as any. The last hour of a drive to the birthplace of the author of In Cold Blood seemed as good a time.

It was almost too much. Taking in twenty of Tom T. Hall’s stories at once on a lonely stretch of southern highway with ghosts all around is like submitting yourself to three straight productions of Chekov–interspersed with a unique style of absurdist comedy, most of it of the quiet chuckle and shake the head variety, until all the moods merge in his scariest song, a tale of mass murder and the death penalty that creates a black hole even the Rolling Stones could never approach. To think he ever sang it on television is more surreal than L’Age d’Or.

it was probably just as well the outward journey came to an end just about the time “Before Jessie Died” closed things down.

As often happens, I was able to separate the journey from the arrival and thoroughly enjoy myself. But when I headed home a day-and-a-half later, I was glad I had brought something to continue the mood. Hated to leave all those ghosts just hanging about out there.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Anthology Warren Zevon (1996)

I think I probably just grabbed this one out of instinct. I’ve had it a while. I play it a lot. It goes a little slack in the middle of the second disc.

But something must have been nudging me, saying “you’ll need this.”

After Tom T. Hall and (speaking of Chekovian moods) “A Christmas Memory,” I needed it. It delivered, too, eased me right back into my Dr. Sardonicus mode, very handy for living and driving.

And then, right in the middle of that second disc that goes slack here and there (not so bad on the road, really–sometimes you can use a break from anything), Zevon started merging with Barry Seal. I started asking myself things like: Did Warren Zevon just decide at some point he was only going to write songs about Barry Seal…or did Barry Seal decide he wanted to live his life like a Warren Zevon song? it’s a legit question because, really, it could have happened either way. And once the connection was made, I couldn’t break it. The question rose, track after track: Could this be Barry? And the answer came back every time: You bet. And not always in obvious ways.

It was spooky. I’m not sure I can convey how spooky, even as it made me laugh like a loong. It’s possible I can never listen to this again. At least not without watching the movie too (whether before or after is something I’ll have to work on).

Well, you can imagine what kind of mood that left me in. The choice for the home leg was John Mellencamp or bootleg Dylan.

Bob Dylan Live 1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4 (Officially Released 1998)

Choice?

Come on. Barry Seal and Warren Zevon had just merged in my head. What choice?

And this is something I’ve been wanting to give a real chance, since it’s never really reached me. I never heard the famous bootleg that circulated for years, but I heard plenty about it, so being a big Dylan fan, and having been assured-to-the-point-of-annoyance by all in the know that I hadn’t really heard Dylan until I heard this, I snapped it up the minute it became available in 1998. After it did not survive the Great CD Selloff of 2002, I didn’t make a high priority of reacquiring it, but it wasn’t something I could safely leave alone, so I picked it up again a few years ago.

And had the same reaction I had the first time around, which was: Meh.

It happens sometimes. An album acquires so much mythic weight that, by the time you finally get to hear it, probably nothing could live up to the expectations generated by the intervening years.

Certainly not this….One CD of Dylan alone, breathing (as Greil Marcus would have it) ver-y-y-y-y softly. One CD of him and the band (the Hawks, soon to be the Band) assaulting their amps–and the crowd–with white noise. Plus English people shouting stuff you can’t make out without an interpreter.

But, being fair, I had never road-tested it.

And?

Sure enough, it kinda’ sorta’ revealed itself. Mostly by reversing itself.

Dylan’s real assault on his audience–the one in the hall (which, yes, we know, wasn’t the Royal Albert Hall that had been advertised all those bootleg years), and, by extension, the one beyond the hall, the one that had cheered his every move before dividing over his move to Rock and Roll–came in the “quiet” early part of the show.

That’s the part where he refuses to give anything at all. The singing is flat, even for his oh-so-sincere, folkie voice. There are no jokes, no repartee, no pronouncements, no attempt to be liked or disliked. Nothing. One song, breathed softly. Then another, breathed even more softly.

Let me tell you, divested of Dylan-being-Dylan, they mean less than you think, at least on the back roads of Alabama.

But the one thing about having the CDs queued up in the car is there’s no pause to switch the discs.

And it was only in that context that the white noise finally made sense.

Turns out, sucking all the life out of “Just Like a Woman” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” was prelude, a perfect setup. One can hear why people were shocked-to-the-bone by the juxtaposition (there must have been some sense in the hall, even if only subconscious, that Dylan’s sermon-straight reading of his most sacred texts had been a form of mockery….although I grant you a really determined folkie can miss a lot).

Quiet as a mouse, moment after moment for an hour. Then this…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PsNFgRYWEw

And then on like that for most of another hour.

At least on the back roads of Alabama, nothing could live up to that first shock wave, not even the cataclysmic version of “Like a Rolling Stone” that closes the show.

But I finally got what all the excitement was/is about.

Whether I’ll ever want to listen to that first disc again, just so I can find out if the jolt at the top of the second transcends first experience, is a question I’ll have to leave for another day.

That’s what the road is for.

Happy Thanksgiving!

LO-FI-NO-FI-RETRO-AMERICANA….ALL TRANSCENDED, ALL REDEEMED (CD Review: John Mellencamp’s No Better Than This)

John Mellencamp
No Better Than This (2010)

mellencamp1

I’m a Mellencamp fan and I’d heard good things about this when it came out, but it was only a year or so back that I acquired it. I gave it a couple of cursory listens and then filed it away as a subject for future investigation.

The future came this week and it hit me upside the head, maybe just about the time Mellencamp’s po’ boy loner–the kind of weary cliche that makes me throw up every defense I have and which no previous singer has so completely broken down–sings about the wife who takes a frying pan upside his head.

Except she isn’t his wife. She’s a woman he’s just spotted her on the street somewhere and exchanged a friendly glance with before spending a few moments describing to the listener–as if they’ve already happened–all the things he could imagine happening if that friendly glance led to matrimony and such. Naturally, by the end of the song, he’s ready to move on, leaving all the possibilities you thought were realities unexplored.

Upon the album’s release, Mellencamp got a lot of publicity out of its gimmick, which was recording the thirteen tracks he had written–every one of which sounds like a folk song or a blues pulled from the bottom of a stack of 78s no one ever heard of, let alone heard out loud–in the Sun Studio, the San Antonio hotel where Robert Johnson was recorded, and a slavery-era church in Savannah, Georgia.

As Greil Marcus and a few others pointed out at the time, the gimmick shouldn’t work but does, because it doesn’t feel like a gimmick. What nobody seems to have gotten around to fully explaining (I can’t say I read every review, but I read a bunch), is just why it doesn’t feel that way, which is because it’s the boldest example of a common conceit–that rare reach that actually qualifies as something nobody pulled off, or probably even thought of, before.

Starting somewhere in the mid-sixties–maybe with the Beach Boys’ Party! LP from 1965, there have been constant attempts of reach back to a mythic past, sometimes near, sometimes distant, and imagine what might have been if rock and roll had gone in a slightly different direction. At its best, in the early music of the Band, or Party! itself, this approach could be revelatory and break open spaces that would have otherwise lain fallow. At its worst, which was most of the time, it could be soul-crushing. Somewhere in between, it could be anything from heartfelt and detailed enough to qualify as honorable, smile-inducing homage (the best work of Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids or Tracey Ullman) to earnest folk music (where I’ve always slotted the strain in Bruce Springsteen’s music that began, and peaked, with Nebraska).

Some of this music got called bold because it seemed to exist in a world where rock and roll never happened. Most of it existed only because rock and roll happened.

On No Better Than This, Mellencamp stretches both ideas past their logical extremes: In the real world, the one we actually live in, he’s a man who could never have been a star without rock and roll because no world but this one would have had him. In the world he creates on this record, he uses his real-world status to imagine–and perfect–a world not where rock and roll never happened (been done) but one where rock and roll is just about to happen. That difference, once it locks in, makes the difference. This week, starting with a casual listen that was different from my previous listenings because I put on headphones, I began to suspect something was up about midway through the first song. By the time Mellencamp closed with a wry chuckle, twelve and a half songs later, I had a new obsession, the kind that rarely happens to me anymore, because I almost never need to listen to something until I figure it out.

The leap between this and every bit of proto, in-the-moment, or retro Americana I’ve ever heard is that, in one key respect, Mellencamp remains who he is. He’s reaching back to the early fifties, not as a star-in-the-making, some great lost voice who would have taken rock and roll in a whole new direction if only some visionary producer or enlightened audience had understood his genius, but as a gifted journeyman with his own ideas about how things should be. He hasn’t gone back in time to be Woody Guthrie or LIttle Richard. He’s gone back to be Harmonica Frank or Lowell Fulson, or, better yet, a forgotten contemporary, with his own little weird niche, which may (Fulson) or may not (Harmonica Frank) one day lead to a modest career.

In other words Mellencamp has imagined the fix he’d be in if rock and roll hadn’t exploded into something that could make somebody like John Mellencamp a star.

How consciously he did this I don’t know, but sometimes–quite often really–the artist knows better than the man. This is an album that keeps asking: “What if this had been all there was?” and then supplies its own answer. Which is along the lines of: “We think we’re lucky we didn’t have to find out…but are we?”

Now you know we’re lucky (i.e. “better off”). And I know we’re lucky. And John Mellencamp sure knows we’re lucky.

But the guy on the record isn’t so sure. And for the length of this record, he stood in the place where John Mellencamp used to be.

I’m not sure any album has ever asked and answered this path-not-taken question in quite the same way before. More than thirty years into a career that could never have happened unless we, and he, have been very lucky indeed, John Mellencamp dared to raise the question of his own worth and the worth of the world we’ve made since rock and roll, with its unbounded promise, first danced out of the shadows.

And I’m going to play you a track now, but I guarantee there is no way to comprehend how exhilarating and disturbing this eerily quiet “mono” music is without getting hold of the album and finding some zone quiet enough and slow enough to absorb it whole, without interference from the modern world.

THE DEATH OF POLITICS (Segue of the Day: 3/22/16)

Well the first death of American politics anyway. Whether politics ever have more than one death to die in any given culture is, I suppose, still an open question.

I actually heard these three songs in a row on the radio a few days ago but they’ve stayed with me because they formed a heart-stopping triptych and because there’s no way to understand what’s going on now without understanding what went on then.

What went on “then” (i.e. in the seventies and eighties) was a successful attempt by the overlords to take the politics out of politics. What’s going on now, in this “turbulent” political season is an attempt, in the candidacies of Trump and Sanders, to put the politics back in. If you see the “establishments” running, then you know they understand the degree to which their lives are at stake. If you see them landing much harder on Trump than on Sanders, it’s only because Trump actually has a chance at a nomination.

What has been noticeably missing is any contemporary cultural component. The attempts of major athletes and hip hop stars to associate themselves with Black Lives Matter, for instance, have come across as the crass commercial ploys they are. One can almost see the thought balloons floating above their heads: “Wonder if this is good for my shoe contract?”

Answer: “Yes it is!”

No surprise there. Radical chic has been a big seller for decades.

And it’s not as though the cultural component that existed the last time around was some kind of unqualified success. It certainly didn’t succeed in keeping the politics in politics.

But the whole point of remembering the revolution at this point–the main point of this blog–is to recall a sense of possibility. To remember that it’s not a given for people to have no voice in their culture or their governance (and, of course, not a given that we will choose wisely should such possibilities exist again…only that the current road is the way to dusty death).

It was not always thus. And perhaps. just perhaps, it need not always be thus:

 

And the killer…now almost forgotten by the radio:

We’ll leave music’s ability to stop or recapture time, and my memories of hearing the latter on the way home from the hospital the week my mother died out of this for now. Worrying about the country seems heavy enough.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (John Mellencamp Walks the Walk)

I spent Friday night watching back-to-back PBS broadcasts of ceremonies honoring the last two Gershwin Award winners. First up was this year’s honoree, Billy Joel, being feted at Constitution Hall. Second was a re-broadcast of an earlier shindig thrown for last year’s winner Carole King at the White House.

The star of King’s tribute was King herself, equally affecting whether she was beaming at the other performers from her front row seat, giving her acceptance speech, or rocking the house.

Joel’s tribute was, er, nice.

Amongst the stuff you always have to put up with at these things, there were genuinely nice performances from Boyz II Men, LeAnn Rimes, Natalie Maines, Joel himself.

All very apropo.

And, right in the middle of all that, John Mellencamp dropped by, wearing his Down-From-the-Mountain coat, which has been hanging on his shoulders–literally and figuratively–for so long it’s apparently turned into a second skin. I mean, I sure as hell couldn’t tell him from Woody Guthrie and that’s saying a little something, because Woody never got invited to this sort of thing.

Has he earned that sort of status?

Well, he was there to remind a room full of swells that the purely economic blight that settled over the land in the “go-go” eighties is with us still. I don’t know whose idea that was–Billy Joel, John Mellencamp, Jehovah. But, if the point was to emphasize the ultimate emptiness of all that pomp and circumstance, somebody knew what they were doing.

There’s no way to gauge the full impact of this outside of its context: the singer striding into the hall, saying his piece, ripping the heart from underneath a song that, on record, was, frankly, as slick a piece of pure product as ever came down the pike, holding it up for all to see, then–having cut the applause in half–walking off without looking back (apparently he walked straight out of the building, because he was noticeably absent from the standard-issue big finale where everybody gets on stage at once and sings the honoree’s signature tune)

But I think this answers the question.

Yeah, he’s earned that status.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mFPTieFT7KI

 

SEGUE OF THE DAY (10/3/12)

Presidential Debate/John Mellencamp

John Mellencamp “Pink Houses” (Live, 1987)

John Mellencamp “Pink Houses” (Live, 2001)

I work for a living, albeit mostly at home, which allows for a certain freedom regarding the nightly soundtrack.

Tonight I decided to listen to the debate between Obama and Romney while I typed.

As usual with these things, however they are experienced, I could feel the nation’s collective IQ dipping by the minute as the words alternately gushed (I think that was the Challenger Pod) and murmured (I think that was the Incumbent Pod).

Then it ended and the truest exemplars of the national Dead Brain Cell Count–the mass media–took over–dedicated, as always, to the proposition of maintaining their own champion DBCC status at all costs.

I’m a sucker for punishment so, as usual, I took a short break and went in and surfed the usual suspect channels (cable, public and broadcast in about equal measure) seeking signs of intelligent life.

Shockingly, none appeared.

Nor did anyone who could explain the concept of “Wolf Blitzer,” a continuing cosmic quest of mine stymied yet once more.

So, as usual, I shut the darn box off and put on some music.

I didn’t feel like casting about and needed to get back to work anyhow, so I just went with what was in the CD player, which turned out to be John Mellencamp’s Words and Music collection, which I fell asleep to last night (not because it makes me feel sleepy, incidentally, but just because I was plain exhausted).

First track happens to be “Walk Tall,” which is an undistinguished cut from some time after Mellencamp’s eighties’ prime.

And almost the first words out of his mouth were, “people believe what they want to believe when it makes no sense at all.”

I mean, it didn’t explain Wolf Blitzer or anything, but, in context, that line actually sounded quite profound, an effect it certainly never had on me before.

That’s a rock and roll world view for you–making sense of things even on an off day.

Or maybe I just knew “Pink Houses” was coming up next and–pushing through my vague dueling memories of its past abuse by the campaigns of those moral stalwarts John Edwards and John McCain–I would soon be healing.

Ah, election years. Nothing like ‘em.