I have to confess that singer/songwriter John Prine’s voice never moved me. I got to know his songs through other people–but there were a lot of them and a lot of singers did them justice: Bonnie Raitt, Tanya Tucker, Swamp Dogg, Bette Midler, to name just a few. Everybody got up for a John Prine song.
No one who follows along here will be surprised that my favorite Prine cover was by Jackie DeShannon on her wondrous Atlantic LP, Jackie from 1972. In its double-length CD version (only half was released initially), it’s one of the great concept albums, tied together by spiritual, rather than philosophical or lyrical themes. In any version, the first cut, a rendition of Prine’s “Paradise,” set the tone–game recognizing game on a song that probably struck an even deeper autobiographical chord for her than for him.
I’ve always been fascinated by acts who have exactly one great rock and roll record in them. It happened a lot in rock’s first two decades, when amateurs or quasi-pros or wannabes often caught lightning in a bottle. Of such things were doo wop, girl groups and surf and garage band legends made.
Then there were the pros. Barbra Streisand singing “Stoney End” comes to mind. It really was just the one studio moment, as she’s camped up every performance of the song since the day she cut it.
In some ways even stranger is Bette Midler’s take on “Beast of Burden.” She recorded it as a replacement for Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” when he blocked her from releasing her version because it “wasn’t a girl’s song” and it doesn’t so much smoke the Rolling Stones as stomp a hole through their rotting carcass.
Stranger still because, unlike Streisand, rock and roll seemed like it should have been Midler’s forte. But, except for this, it wasn’t. I can see how the Stones never quite recovered from the shock. It’s one thing if Linda Ronstadt goes toe-to-toe with you. It’s another thing when someone whose entire career has careened from camp to sentiment and back again (sometimes, as on “The Rose” or her cover of John Prine’s “Hello In There,” earned sentiment, more often not quite), just flat out kicks you to the curb like it’s all in a day’s work.
Based on “Beast of Burden” you’d have thought she could be a better Pat Benetar without breaking a sweat.
I thought I had covered all this a few years back when I posted the MTV video of Midler and Jagger having a ball with it. There’s a cleaner version of the video available now–still the only proof I’ve seen that Mick has a sense of humor (as opposed to recognizing the uses of appearing to have one–that came with the Lucifer Lessons).
Even here, though, the Spirit of Camp is hovering nearby. Elsewhere, when Midler performed the song, live or synched, that Spirit always moved in and took over.
Except for once.
I’ll leave it to you to decide whether its angry dispersal here–and Midler’s total immersion in a synched performance, as if she and the song had fused into something no recording studio could contain–had anything at all to do with a nice Jewish girl refusing to camp it up in the home of Weimar decadence, a stone’s throw from the death camps.
Given that dynamic, it’s not impossible to imagine “I’ll never be your beast of burden” took on a whole new meaning. She didn’t do anything like this in Sweden.
**A few years later Natalie Cole’s version of “Pink Cadillac” scorched up the charts and no one was heard to complain. Midler’s live version on YouTube suggests she was better off with “Beast of Burden” but, given what she did with other live versions of “Beast” who knows? Maybe she had two great rock and roll records in her after all. Hope I get to hear her studio version some day, just in case.
Of the select group of singers who have been known to keep me up all night (you know, get me thinking I’ll just listen to an album or two round about midnight and still be on the player when the sun comes up, which is, believe me, the only way I ever get to see the dawn), only two have kept me up trying to figure them out.
That’s a very different quality than loving someone’s voice, though of course that has to be the foundation. I’m not gonna spend all night with somebody I merely like a lot. All three of my friends can tell you….I’m just not that kind of guy!
Anyway, one of those singers is surprise, surprise, Elvis Presley and over the years I’ve at least come to some sort of conclusions about his place in the Cosmos, some of which I’ve shared on this blog.
Somewhere along the way, I flat gave up on Tanya Tucker.
I even stopped listening to her all night (though admittedly this has something to do with how little of her best music is available on CD and the mysterious curse on my string of den-ready record players). I never forgot mind you. Never forgot how good she is, or how strange she is. And, before I stopped listening all night, I had long since dismissed any notion that she was merely eccentric, after the manner of Prince or Dr. John or Frank Zappa, not only because that style of studied accentuation of a persona never much appealed to me but because it just didn’t suit her at all.
She was great enough to be as great as anybody and strange enough to take all kinds of purely musical risks, not a few of which left her flat on whatever a singer falls on when they slip on the proverbial existential banana peel.
Also great enough and strange enough to find that little space the ordinary genius doesn’t find.
In other words, a lot like Elvis (who, yet again being uncannily-astute-even-if-he-was-just-being-polite-too, once called her the female version of himself).
On record this quality might have showed itself as subtly as the way she dug in at the very end of an otherwise note-for-note copy of Linda Ronstadt’s by then standard arrangement of “When Will I Be Loved” and not only cut away the difference between her very good voice and Ronstadt’s spectacular one but actually upped the ante.
Or it might have showed itself as completely devoid of subtlety as the in-your-face way she called up the harsh, pitiless desperation in John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” which a singer as fine as Bonnie Raitt had essentially treated as a folk song about an old person we ought to all feel sorry for and which even Prine had sung from the outside looking in.
It might have even come from as far out as the absolutely natural way she leaned on the key lines in this…
…which would have been a joke–or a folk song about a young person we ought to feel sorry for–coming from anybody else who ever lived. Coming from her (a superstar prodigy who hadn’t lived in “the real world” from the age of thirteen and hadn’t exactly lived a normal existence for a long time before that) it cut straight under the scar tissue covering the soul of every wild child you ever tried to look down on because you could take one look and know she was going to wind up in a Tanya Tucker song some day.
I don’t know. Seemed like worth staying up all night for to me, trying to get to the bottom of all that.
But, as I say, at some point I let it go.
I still listen, of course, but I never got a handle on her.
And I never will.
Last night I was running around YouTube, trying to piece together some sort of theme relating to why all my favorite living country singers are women just a few years older than me: Jeannie Kendall (b. 1954), Pam Tillis (b. 1957), Patty Loveless (b. 1957). And, of course, I was going to put Tanya (b. 1958) in there somewhere.
Then I ran across something that stopped me cold because it was the old, weird Tanya again, smoking up an Orlando club some-time in the eighties. I’d seen some of the footage from the concert before (there’s a version of “San Antonio Stroll” from the same concert which I’ve always been fond of that beats Miley Cyrus’ latest career moves by thirty years and every other kind of way).
I might have even seen this before.
But I never really heard it.
Maybe I had the not-quite-there version from her 1982 live album, (so familiar from those long ago all night sessions, which were by no means limited to what I liked because with Tanya half the time I didn’t even know what I liked), too firmly lodged in my ear.
Maybe YouTube isn’t the best venue for critical reassessment. Maybe the fact that she used Joan Baez’s folk-song lyrics instead of the Band’s hard-scrabble history lessons (“so much cavalry” for “Stoneman’s cavalry,” “I took the train” for “By May the tenth” and so forth) was calling up the rock snob in me.
Maybe no man could be expected to pay strict attention to the way any woman is singing when she’s getting away with an outfit that wouldn’t sell ice-to-an-Eskimo on anybody else the way it does on her.
For whatever reason, I probably listened before, but I definitely didn’t hear.
I heard it this time.
I very especially heard the way she finally put the rebel yell back in the song.
I heard what Levon Helm deliberately suppressed (he wasn’t in a position to let any Yankees think he was talking about them…not in 1969 with a review in Rolling Stone pending that might make the difference in whether he died rich as a rock star or poor as Virgil Caine) and what Joan Baez (a fair candidate for the Yankeeest Yankee in Yankeedom) couldn’t have conjured even if she had somehow imagined its existence.
In other words, the girl who had sung the New South anthem, “I Believe the South Is Gonna Rise Again” (oh, but not the way we thought it would back then) and the neo-Confederate anthem “I Still Sing the Old Songs” (where the south that the singer wants to see rise again is precisely the one “we” thought about back then) with equal spine-tingling conviction, had come to a place where a setting that was half Vegas-warm-up and half barn-dance-stomp seemed like as good a chance as any to assume the position that Dixie never got drove down at all and to hell with you if you think it did.
Believe me when I say that it’s a rare white Southerner, however enlightened, who doesn’t get this, just as it’s a much rarer white Southerner than you might think who isn’t secretly glad the Yankees won.
And lest you think it’s even that simple, bear in mind that, if you flip around YouTube a little longer, you’re likely to run across this next video, which I confess I had all but forgotten about and which sprang from the Rhythm, Country and Blues project in the nineties.
That was one of Nashville’s periodic attempts to pretend the hard, segregated line its generations of suits (with admittedly some collaboration from artists and audience, though that’s complicated, too) started taking almost ninety years ago doesn’t really exist.
Little Richard, one of the artists the particular line drawn in the late fifties had been especially designed to exclude (a line so rigid it left Elvis and Brenda Lee and the Everly Brothers on the far side of it, kicked to the curb so to speak, even though they were Southern whites recording in Nashville with the same producers and musicians everybody else used and were, basically, the biggest pop stars in the world), was finally to be invited inside the tent.
And if you didn’t want that to be fake, or awkward, or embarrassing in either the musical or political sense, there was exactly one Nashville hit-maker you could call.
Gee, who do you think that was?
The female Elvis maybe?
More especially if you hoped to sell ice-to-Eskimos live on television with a thoroughly bemused let’s-all-try-to-get-through-this-now Vince Gill introduction…
The 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees have been announced:
Congratulations to Nirvana, KISS, Hall and Oates, Peter Gabriel, Cat Stevens and Linda Ronstadt.
I’ve been stumping for Ronstadt on this blog for pretty much the entire twenty-two months of its existence (and in the occasional letter-writing campaign for many a long year before that) so I’m only sorry that it took the announcement of a debilitating disease for the Hall to do the right thing by her.
Hall and Oates were the only others I voted for myself on the fan ballots that were available at Rolling Stone and Future Rock Hall, but there were strong cases for all the others and part of what’s fun (and very rock and roll) about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is that it covers a lot of ground and makes for a lot of good arguments.
A lot of folks are naming Cat Stevens as the margin call this time around, and some are even insisting that the Hall must be cooking the books to keep including so many crit-fave singer-songwriters year after year (Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Laura Nyro and Randy Newman have gone in previously).
Sorry, but my guess is that if the Hall’s voting gurus do fix the process–and I’ve never seen anyone produce any real evidence that this is the case–it’s more likely to throw a bone to truly vocal fan bases like the KISS army.
And I don’t find it difficult to believe that there is a bloc of voters who consistently rally around a genre of performers they happen to like and think are worthy. (And I’ll add, once again, that with Cat Stevens now stacked up with all the others on one side, their combined weight still doesn’t tip the scale against Jackie DeShannon all by herself on the other. I’ll be saying the same thing after John Prine and Warren Zevon are doubtless added in the near future.)
In any case, my own margin call is Peter Gabriel (already voted in as a member of Genesis). Excepting truly no-brainer exceptions like the solo Michael Jackson, I don’t think anyone should be inducted twice while so many of the deserving haven’t been inducted once. And, if there are going to be two-time inductees, then Smokey Robinson (in as a performer, but should be in as a non-performer as well), Jerry Butler (in as a member of the Impressions, with whom he made only one record, but not in as a solo performer, though he was/is a far greater and far more influential artist than Gabriel or many others already inducted) and Carole King (ditto), would all be considerably more worthy than Peter Gabriel.
But the real disappointment for me (though not a surprise) was in Link Wray not getting in.
It is passing strange that Wray and Johnny Burnette’s Rock N’ Roll trio, the two acts who rest at the very heart of the Hard Rock genre which brings out the loudest complaints year-after-year from fans who feel it is “under-represented”–complaints that will likely only shift emphasis (rather than subside) now that the Rush and KISS armies have been appeased–receive so little public support from either the artists who later made gazillions off their basic ideas, or the fans who stump for those artists.
I like the idea that bands like Rush and KISS have passionate fan bases who have kept pressure on the Hall all these years. And I like the idea that they were rewarded for their faith….better than I like the bands in question as it happens (even though I like the bands just fine and love a few of their records).
But we shouldn’t forget where all that Sturm und Drang really came from (you might need to double click this one):
And I’ll take it as a hopeful sign that Mr. Page does have a vote!
(NOTE: Just FYI: If I had a “real” ballot, I would have cast one of my votes for Nirvana. I figure the fan’s ballot, in which the total fan vote gets counted as one, is for the fan in me, not the responsible citizen.)
“Psycho” Elvis Costello (1979)…too close to actually being inside the mind of a psychopath. Costello made many great sides before this, only a handful since. Coincidence? Probably not. (No link available that I could find.)
“I Miss You” (Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes) (1972)…too close to being in somebody else’s life where I don’t belong, like overhearing a friend’s conversation and knowing that, for better or worse, you’ll never feel the same about them again.
“I Feel Like Going Home” (Charlie Rich–Acoustic Version) (1973)…too close to the bone of Calvinist fatalism for anyone who believes in the resurrection to come away unscarred.
“Powerderfinger” Neil Young and Crazy Horse (1979)…too close to the deepest nightmares of a culture that has always prized violence a little too highly.
“Six White Horses” Waylon Jennings (1969)…too constant a reminder that Viet Nam is a wound that has never healed and never will.
“Angel From Montgomery” Tanya Tucker (1977)…too keen a reminder of certain older women I knew in youth who had nothing left, including hope, and, therefore–unlike the fine versions by composer John Prine and all-timer Bonnie Raitt–too much like a black hole in the sun. (No link to the studio version. There’s a terrific live version here, but I don’t find it scarifying.)