THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Fall 2019, Countdown–All Vinyl Edition)

10) Elvis Presley The Sun Sessions (1976)

Still the best way to hear the revolution happening in real time. What’s remarkable at this distance is how quiet the music is at its core, something one would never say about E’s R&B predecessors though it might apply to some of his pop and bluegrass influences. The leap from “Blue Moon of Kentucky”–incendiary in context–to “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (which wastes fine versions by Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris–along with all of human history to that moment, including “That’s Alright Mama”) is still shocking. A miracle in other words and as inexplicable as ever.

9) The Firesign Theatre Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers (1970)

I had to pull this to be sure it was the source of The Department of Redundancy Department so of course I listened to the whole thing. I always found them hit and miss (I sort of thought that was the point–that nobody would get all of it, especially the people who swore they did.)

I laughed. Nervously. Like always. Still not sure if they were geniuses or complete frauds.

Which might also be the point.

8) The Beatles Second Album (1964)

If you accept the Beatles as a garage band before they were anything else, this is the greatest garage band album ever. It was, of course, put out by their American record company, Capitol, with any eye to maximum commercial exploitation of their magic, maximally commercial, moment.

But that doesn’t keep it from being their strongest LP, start to finish. “Roll Over Beethoven” (with George delivering a rabid lead vocal) and “Money” are the strongest of their many strong covers and you can smell their naked ambition in every groove. Capitalism 101 all the way around. If you substitute greed for ambition, you can understand why John Lennon spent the rest of his life trying to make it up to everyone…including the tragic pretense he could walk around the streets of the meanest city in the world like any other citizen without paying a price.

7) Nancy Sinatra Nancy (1969)

The greatest torch album recorded by any member of the Sinatra family and that’s no shame on the rest because, at least thematically, it might be the greatest torch album by any member of anybody’s family.

I scored it for three bucks at a record show in the early nineties and, after my first listen, immediately set out on a quest to track down the rest of her LPs, which were not easy to find in the Florida Panhandle in those days. (Later, I bought them all on CD, only to see them go in the Great CD Selloff of 2002. This is the only one I’ve replaced. Hey, I still got the vinyl versions of the rest.) It turned out this was her magnum opus, the album she had in her all along. Absent Lee Hazlewood, she eschewed any pretense of being hip or groovy and slowed everything to a crawl. “Light My Fire,” “Son of a Preacher Man” “For Once in My Life” even “Memories,” which was slow to begin with, are drawn into her space so thoroughly and intimately the question of whether her versions are “better” is left for fools. The killer was “Big Boss Man,” which she not only slowed down, but turned inside out. She got scant credit for any of this, of course. I wonder if it would have made a difference if they’d included “Home,” her tribute to the body bags coming home from Viet Nam (now available as a bonus track on the CD edition). Probably not. Returning soldiers weren’t very popular then. Dead or alive.

6) Charlie Rich The Fabulous Charlie Rich (1969)

One of the greatest vocal albums ever recorded, stellar even by the standards of ’69, which was the greatest vocal year in the history of American music.

Rich was one of the few singers who could immerse himself in Beautiful Loser mythos and get away with it, probably because he didn’t sound like he was imagining being beaten. He sounded like he was beaten. That he was barely hanging on.

This is the best place to hear the timless “Life Has It’s Little Ups and Downs,” but the whole thing shines and “July 12, 1939,” his prequel/sequel to “Ode to Billie Joe” hasn’t aged a day either.

5) Linda Ronstadt Mad Love (1980)

An exchange in Greil Marcus’s mailbag had me pulling this one off the shelf for the first time in forever. I confess I missed it. She went New Wave (fake punk in Marcus’s words) and nailed it solid….like she usually did, except this is more consistent than anything I can remember except Heart Like a Whell and Prisoner in Disguise, the one-two punch that made her a superstar who could take these kind of chances in the first place.

This is also the one where she responded to Elvis Costello’s attack on her version of “Alison” by recording three more of his songs and beating him two falls out of three. That was after she called him a brat. It took brass to do all that in the brief period where he was a genius, but the real highlights, the title tune and “How Do I Make You,” don’t owe EC a thing. This one may go into heavy rotation.

4) James Brown Can Your Heart Stand It!! (1981)

This was actually my proper introduction to JB. What with all the box sets and CD reissues and what not, I’d forgotten how perfect it was

It only took one listen to remember. Understandably, people focus on the four-square funk bottom. But it was his singing that was the real miracle, the vocal equivalent of watching Elvis on television in the 50’s, or James himself on The T.A.M.I. Show.

You keep thinking, What will he do next?

Decades of listening don’t really yield any answers. The next move, whenever it comes, is still a surprise.

(And God bless the late, lamented Solid Smoke label, on which this and the next entry appeared.)

3) The Sheppards 18 Dusty Diamonds (1980)

This came out in the early 80’s, when record companies were just starting to pick up the pace when it came to discovering, or rediscovering, rock and roll’s bottomless nature.

The Sheppards were some kind of cross between doo wop and soul, a bit like The Jive Five. But, where the Five were always defined by Eugene Pitt’s dark, moody leads, the Sheppards were more flexible. That could lead them to the occasional silly novelty, but when they locked in, which was often, they were as great as anybody.

2) Ivory Joe Hunter The Man and His Music: Classics I & II (1983)

Well, as you can see this one is pretty obscure. I couldn’t find an image online for this particular collection, proving you still can’t find everything on the internet! (Well, proving I can’t anyway).

It’s a double-LP collection of Ivory Joe’s music from his late 40’s R&B heyday to his late 60’s forays into country. He was such a master of nuance that you could switch the production styles from one era to another and nobody would be the wiser. Intriguing discovery (and one more reason you should pay attention to your record collection) is a 1961 side “May the Best Man Win,” where he sounds so much like Charlie Rich you can’t help wondering who influenced who.

1) Dizzy Gillespie New Wave (1963)

My favorite bop album. One of these days I’m going to replace my scratchy vinyl with a clean-sounding CD. Since the vinyl came used (from my Dad’s flea market stash many moons ago), I’ve never heard it the way it’s supposed to be heard. I think the reason I haven’t upgraded is because I’m afraid it will lose something in the process.

Being the first form of American music made principally for dilettantes (or at least being principally exploited by them), bop’s not really my thing. It’s a pure mystery why I warmed to this one. But then, music is supposed to be a mystery isn’t it?

I hope they remember that in heaven.

….til next time.

MY FAVORITE SINATRA….NANCY IN ‘69 (Vocalist of the Month for 4/15: Nancy Sinatra)

THE BELIEVER MAGAZINE: It seems like the middle of the ’60s marked a distinct change in the demographics, subculture, and kinds of restaurants and clubs that filled Hollywood from what had been the popular landmarks during your father’s generation–like Ciro’s, the Trocadero, etc. Was there a reason that you weren’t part of this transformation? Was that your label’s decision?

NS: No, Reprise was very much into that scene. They had a lot of great artists join the label at that point. But I think most of the executives at the label looked at me as Frank’s daughter. They didn’t look at me as a fashion icon or an influence on the women’s movement or anything like that. The just tolerated the existence of me. And I know the result of it made me not welcome by my musical peers. I never felt I was part of [a scene], and they never accepted my music or me.

(Source: The Believer, July/August 2014)

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This month marks the centenary of Frank Sinatra’s birth and there have been plenty of celebratory markers, including Sinatra being named “Voice of the Century” by London’s Daily Mail and a new, much-lauded documentary on HBO. As in much of the past twenty years or so, deserved acknowledgment of Frank’s genius has come from across the political spectrum (you can get a sampling from conservative critic Terry Teachout (Commentary, The Wall Street Journalhere and The Daily Beast‘s Allen Barra here).

Me, I appreciate Frank a lot, both as a singer and an actor and, of course, he’s the greater artist and all that. No one’s going to put his daughter up for Voice of the Century.

But the last measure for a fan of singers is the listening they do and, when it comes down to it, I’ve always listened more to Nancy.

The famous Nancy, of course…the Nancy of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” and “Sugartown” and those strange, cool duets with Lee Hazlewood.

And the not-quite-so-well-known Nancy, too (I’m especially fond of her “Hard Hearted Hannah”…aka “the vamp of Sa-van-nah, G-A!”)

More than that, though, I’ve listened to this Nancy…the Nancy who is neither terribly hip or, outside of her hardcore fans, terribly well-known. The Nancy of Nancy:

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Along about now, I should make two things clear.

First, I don’t believe in “kitsch” or “camp” values. I don’t think art should be a shield, or an inside joke or a snigger. It works on you or it doesn’t. It gets around your defenses…Or it doesn’t.

Nancy’s music was hit and miss for me, to be sure, but I never thought “ah well, I really like that, but I better put it through the hipster strainer before I confess it to anybody.”

What I might or might not confess to others in any given moment has always depended on a number of factors (albeit fewer and fewer as I get older and older). But what I believe has always depended on how the object of belief struck me.

And only me.

I thought Nancy Sinatra was great back in the late seventies, the first time I heard “Sugartown” on a small-town radio station in the Florida Panhandle (’bout sixty miles from Tall-a-has-see, where it very definitely “also rains”).

The station played a very odd mix of current pop and country hits and threw in an oldie every hour or so that was always announced by a warm, friendly male voice that I later learned was computer-generated and named “Bruce.” (The oldies in question, incidentally, were a constant rotation of about a dozen songs–the four I remember are “Sugartown,” Lulu’s “Oh Me, Oh My” and Tanya Tucker’s “Lizzie and the Rainman” and Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak’er,” all of which are still playing in my head no matter how long it’s been since I last heard them.)

I’ve thought she was great–no fooling or excusing–ever since.

Having said all that, I freely confess I bought the album above for the cover.

Three bucks at a record show? What, are you kidding? So what if it didn’t have any hits on it (all I knew of her at the moment) and so what if the idea of Nancy doing “Light My Fire” or “Big Boss Man” seemed a bit of a stretch even for a fan like me?

Didn’t matter. I wanted that record cover in my house!

Mind you, I didn’t even know about Nancy’s killer album covers back then (circa 1990 or so–long before she had registered any significant reverse-hip-cred from the likes of Morrissey, or her definitive version of “Bang, Bang” had provided the only piece of music ever played in a Quentin Tarantino film that promised something he couldn’t possibly either deliver or successfully take a crap on). I don’t think I had ever even seen this one. But I was buying that record of hers, even if I never played it more than once or ever bought another one.

To be honest I didn’t have terribly high expectations when I got it home and put it on the record player. See, I didn’t have camp values then, either. But I had the mistaken impression that certain things could never transcend camp. They were bound to be that, or they were bound to be nothing.

Like Nancy Sinatra doing “Big, Boss Man” for instance.

Boy was I wrong.

“Big Boss Man” was at the top of side two (back when you had to flip the darn things in the middle!), and I knew I was wrong long before then.

Side one started with “God Knows I Love You,” which is one of those old-fashioned romancers that, if it ever took place anywhere, did so as far from Hollywood High as anybody could get, and wasn’t likely to grab me less with each ensuing year of confirmed bachelorhood.

I was suspicious of it, to be sure. It was, like a lot of Nancy’s music, familiar, without being quite like anything else. There wasn’t anything to orient it to–to help me figure out whether it was actually good. It was dangerous because it made me want to develop a camp impulse just so I’d have somewhere to put it.

Nothing could make me more suspicious than that. Not then and, frankly, not now.

So, as my own brand of defense, I figured “well, it’s definitely got something” I wasn’t sure what, except that it probably drove the staff at Rolling Stone deeper into drugs and delusion.

That and the cover surely made it worth three bucks!

I might have been safe, then. That might have sufficed, if only the “one cut’s bound to be pretty good at least” syndrome had kicked in and the rest of the album had left me be.

Except…

On the very next track she plain-songed “Memories” into a completely different take on Elvis’ heavy (and gorgeous if, for once, actually a tad louche in the manner some critics were always pretending was his norm) sentiment.

That got me listening closer, thinking…well-l-l-l….

Well what?

Well, I didn’t think too long before I realized I was smack dab in the middle of my first great “easy listening for the midnight hours” album, and it was all the greater because it so obviously wasn’t easy at all.

How “not easy” has been made clearer by the decades since, when Nancy has been joined by Doris Day and Harry James’ soundtrack for Young Man With a Horn, Sam Cooke’s Night Beat, Charlie Rich’s Set Me Free, Louis Armstrong’s Favorites, and the odd item from Julie London as the handful of albums that fill that very particular smoky space.

I don’t mean those are the only albums I play after midnight or even the ones I play most. Just that those are the ones that suit a particular mood and, if you study those names, you can see it’s both the highest company a certain kind of singer can keep and the company is hardly rooted in genre or style, unless “Midnight Blues For One” really is its own style.

I don’t know what possessed Nancy Sinatra to make such an album in 1969, immediately upon her split with her hit-making producer Lee Hazlewood. Whatever it was, it wasn’t born of any impulse to follow the fashion. Torch albums by top-40 gals weren’t exactly the going thing in the Age of Aquarius, even if the top-40 gal was Frank Sinatra’s daughter.

So it was an act–or series of acts–that required some kind of artistic courage. And there’s a certain style of courage that always shines through, provided a proper measure of talent is also on hand. Courage is never enough by itself.

So, at the moment when her eternally hip father was, frankly, embarrassing himself trying to keep up with the times, Nancy reached straight across the broadest possible Pop spectrum and made that reach seem natural–ran the songs I already mentioned into the quiet seduction of “Just Bein’ Plain Old Me,” and a country-politan arrangement of “Here We Go Again” and a tender rendition of “My Dad (My Pa)” that provided a perfect setup for her to torch “Light My Fire” to within an inch of its life.

In other words, made the kind of effects her Dad was trying–and failing–to pull off at the time seem easy as pie.

And, like I say, that was all before she got to this…

…at which point I was a complete goner. ready to track down every Nancy Sinatra album in existence (which, given when and where I was getting ready to do this was, shall we say, a lot harder than it is now…and didn’t come close to landing me any more three-dollar deals either). I mean, plain-songing “Memories” was one thing and torching “Light My Fire” was another thing but plain-song-torching a number that already existed in truly great versions by Jimmy Reed, Elvis, Charlie Rich, Bobbie Gentry and maybe fifty or sixty other folks and making them all sound like they had missed the point…well…that was some kind of perverse genius and if I wasn’t quite past the point of caring who knew it then, I’m way past the point of caring who knows it now.

Frank found his stride again soon enough (turned out retiring, officially or unofficially, and coming back, officially or unofficially depending on how you left it, was the Career Move of the Century–it beat dying by miles and these days, you practically can’t find a big name in Show Biz who hasn’t tried it, up to and including Johnny Rotten.) Nancy, the meanwhile, soldiered on for a couple of years and started going decades between comebacks, always with some good things, but never quite hitting this height again.

Somewhere in those decades, she started to get hip. Not just quasi-hip but really hip, so much so that she finally reached the Quentin-Tarantino-has-you-in-his-movie-the-producer-from-the-Sopranos-is-on-the-phone-you’re-in-regular-rotation-on-Little-Steven’s-Underground-Garage-and-Greil-Marcus-is-calling-you “shockingly avant garde” stage, which is to say she had finally grabbed all the hipness and cultural currency our present world has to offer.

Which is great. On top of everything else, she always seemed like the sort of decent stick who deserved it and double for all the crap she undoubtedly had to put up with from what she nicely termed her “musical peers.”

Very few of those peers had the guts to truly go their own way when “being hip” was nowhere in sight. And these days, you don’t need to scour record shows or out-of-the-way vinyl bins in Florida beach towns to find a copy of Nancy. Right now you can go on Amazon and pick it up for a mere thirty bucks. Wait a week and maybe it will be a little more or a little less, but in any case, it will have a bunch of beautiful bonus tracks, which, unlike the bonus tracks on nearly every other reissue in existence, actually deepen and enhance the original concept and end with this, which we can all ponder as our overlords seek the newest excuse to send the next batch of twenty-year-olds into the next meat-grinder with the same old promise to make it come right this time.

So thanks, Nancy. Thanks, on the hundredth anniversary of your legendary dad’s birth, for staying true to something other than a moment of turbulence and helping see me and ever how many others through the long decades of increasingly discomforting numbness that have descended upon us ever since.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXm0nTvQQKc

 

THE ICE IS STILL SLOWLY MELTING: NANCY SINATRA HAS A TALE TO TELL (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #30)

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The current issue of The Believer has an interview with Nancy Sinatra which continues a process of de-bunking Priesthood of the Svengali.

Nancy was one of many pre-Janis, pre-Aretha female singers who were perceived as the product of some producer’s singular genius which would have worked just about as well with any other lucky girl said genius happened to pick from the bunch.

Over the last twenty years or so, the young women who (outside of their records) were given no voice in the early and mid-sixties when they re-made the world as surely as Elvis or the Beatles, have told their stories (the stories that everyone from Tom Wolfe to Rolling Stone assiduously ignored in the moment and ever since).

Now joining Arlene Smith, Ronnie Spector, Darlene Love, Cher Bono, Mary Weiss among others, Nancy once again assures us that, in the real world, people are not clay models or sock puppets being maneuvered about by mad geniuses (in her case Lee Hazlewood) however talented those geniuses may have been. Unfortunately the entire interview is not available on-line, so I’ve pulled some choice quotes and highly recommend the issue (and the magazine generally) to those who can find and afford it:

On acceptance in the music industry:

NS: They had a lot of great artists join the label (Reprise) at that point. But I think most of the executives at the label looked at me as Frank’s daughter. They didn’t look at me as a fashion icon or an influence on the womens movement or anything like that. They just tolerated the existence of me. And I know the result of it made me not welcome by my musical peers. I never felt I was part of [a scene], and they never accepted my music or me.

On an enduring myth:

BLVR: At what point did Lee famously instruct you to start singing ‘like a fourteen-year-old girl who screws truck drivers’? (NOTE: Now there’s the crit-illuminati mindset and value system in a nutshell for you.)

NS: I don’t know where that twisted version of what he said came from. I know that that’s been floating around in various forms for a long time. He said much more gently to me, ‘You’ve been married, you’ve been divorced, and people know that. They know that you know what’s going on in life, so you’ve got to behave on the record like you do know.’

On the working relationship between herself, Hazlewood and musical director Billy Strange:

NS: Lee’s lyrics were the guiding light for us, because he wrote these wonderful fantasies. Billy took them and put them to music. And what I did was follow along. The beauty of it was that I added enough to it to make it happen. Lee had done a lot of this stuff with other people and he didn’t get anywhere with it. Lee’s muse in those days was Suzi Jane Hokom. Suzi Jane sang on all those duets. And he sang with Ann-Margret and several other ladies. But it just didn’t have the magic that Nancy and Lee had. So I told him in no uncertain terms over the years that he really owes me a lot, too. He wasn’t the Svengali that he thought he was. So it was a symbiotic relationship that turned out some pretty damned special music. I’m proud of all of it and proud of my contributions to it.

On those fashion statements (though not this one, especially):

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NS: All those clothes that I wore in the early 60’s were [Mary Quant’s]. I brought them from London to Los Angeles and wore them all around. At that point nobody knew what a miniskirt was, so I’d get people throwing me lines like ‘The tennis court is over there,’ stuff like that….And the fact that I ran into her when I was in London promoting those silly songs (from early in her career)–God’s hand must have been on my shoulder. I was at the right place at the right time. Little did I know that I would run into a song called “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” and that I already had the outfits. I didn’t have to go shopping for them.

On her legacy:

NS: I’m very glad that I saw it and could take advantage of working with Lee. But I don’t know, honestly, if any other woman singing in those days would have tolerated the treatment from Lee that I put up with over the years. We had the classic love/hate relationship. I’m not ashamed to say that. I think he would say the same thing.

Just as a final note. Hazlewood passed away in 2007 from cancer. Like Shadow Morton and Sonny Bono and most of the others who either sought Svengali-hood or had it thrust upon them in that age-gone-by, he was a man who had his faults, many of which he owned up to in time. He was not, like Nancy’s close friend Phil Spector or England’s Joe Meek, a monster. Like all of them, man or monster, he made beautiful records….

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5Xl0Qry-hA