He recorded almost everything he would be known for in about two years. His various “retirements” from Rock ‘n’ Roll, which he really did believe was the devil’s music, were nearly as numerous as his greatest hits. I’m pushing sixty and he spent most of my lifetime living off his legend.
Doesn’t matter. That brief, shining moment in the 50’s wasn’t everything he ever was, but it was enough. The fire he lit burned deep and long just as if he had answered God’s call after all. It has survived our cultural collapse the only way anything can–by sinking deep in the heart of man, where it will forever constitute the spirit that will need rekindling if we’re ever to amount to anything again.
Two years or two hundred, no man can do more than that.
There was plenty of rock ‘n’ roll in the early fifties. Some of the great records made between 1950 and 1955 had drums on them–almost always played by ace session men (think Earl Palmer on almost everything coming out of New Orleans, especially Fats Domino and Little Richard), though sometimes it was just a matter of a reliable road drummer keeping time during a studio stopover (think “Rocket 88”).
Some of the great records didn’t have drums at all: Think, for instance, Elvis Presley’s first records at Sun, few of which had drums, none of which had D.J. Fontana.
Though he had met Elvis and his band at the Louisiana Hayride, and had been on some road dates, Fontana didn’t get in the studio with them until the first RCA sessions, where, among other things, he added a softly brushed shuffle to the haunted comedy of “Heartbreak Hotel.” That was January of 1956, and, with it, the lineup of the basic rock and roll band–lead and rhythm guitars, bass and drums–had become attached to the era’s transcendent star and solidified into the shape it has held for six decades.
The vision–like most expansive visions in those days–was probably Elvis’s…but it wasn’t an accident that he chose D.J., a man who could bang out the biggest sound anybody could make…
….swing the coolest shuffles known to man…
…or lay in the weeds to accommodate the softest subtleties with an ease that bordered on aplomb.
He could take over a record or disappear inside it on demand.
Thus, it was no accident that the most visionary musician of the twentieth century–with a world to choose from–picked D.J. Fontana, a sufficiently graceful and modest man that he would have to get his accolades from fellow musicians and precious few others, to be his drummer during the most important part of his career.
D.J. Fontana was as good as it got.
And I don’t know if they really had a hell of a band in Rock and Roll Heaven before.
Leaving New York City through the Lincoln Tunnel, you drive through the neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen. On Tenth Avenue, the kids have for many years approached stopped cars at traffic lights and wiped their windows, hoping for quarters. One afternoon in 1964, the Four Seasons’ Bob Gaudio was leaving the city on his way home to New Jersey when he noticed that the kid smearing the glass was a girl.
“I saw her face–just the picture of her face and the clothes tattered…with holes in her stockings, and a little cap on her head,” Gaudio told Fred Bronson, author of The Billboard Book of Number One Hits. She finished the job and stood back as Gaudio searched his pockets for change. To his mortification, he had none. The smallest thing he had was a five.
“There was a split second where I said, ‘I can’t give her a five dollar bill.’ But I couldn’t give her nothing. So I gave her the five dollar bill. The look on her face when I was pulling away–she didn’t say ‘Thank you,’ she just stood there with the bill in her hand and I could see her in the rearview mirror, just standing in disbelief in the middle of the street with the five dollars. And that whole image stayed with me; a rag doll is what she looked like.”
(The Heart of Rock & Soul, Dave Marsh, 1989)
Jersey Boys, the musical based on the lives of the original Four Seasons, Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi, closed its decade-plus run on Broadway this past Sunday, after playing 4,642 shows.
The one I saw in December, 2005, was in the first hundred…and thereby hangs a tale I’ll never have a better reason to share:
Back around 1969, when the Merritt Square Mall in Merritt Island, Florida opened, they had a record store.
I never went near it.
Throughout the early seventies, whenever my ten, eleven, twelve-year-old self ran loose in the mall and I happened to be walking anywhere near the record store, I always made a point of crossing over to the other side. I wasn’t under any instructions or warnings. I just thought the place looked fishy. The people who always–and I mean always–hung around the entrance looked a little too much like the pictures you saw of the Manson Family.
Oh, sure, I knew they were probably harmless. We had hippies at church now and again.
But why take chances?
Bottom line is, I never saw the inside of a record store. Not until later.
Later, I saw the inside of many record stores, more than I can possibly remember. But in those days, I heard very little of what was on the radio anyway. Even if I had cared to brave the Mansonoids at the record shop, there was no need. Let them live in their world. Let me live in mine. If Jesus ever compelled me to witness to them, I would cross that bridge when I came to it.
Until then, I deemed it best to leave well enough alone.
That all changed after we moved to North Florida in 1974. Not right away. I listened to the radio a little more because my parents seemed to play music stations a little more. I have no idea why. Maybe there just weren’t any interesting talk and/or public radio stations where we lived now, just like there weren’t any hippies.
The real change came in the fall of 1975, when my Memphis nephew, who is five years older than me (19 to my 14 then), moved in with us.
My Memphis nephew didn’t go anywhere without the radio playing music. If we went somewhere in the car, he played the radio. If we went to work on one of my father’s paint contracting sites, he played the radio. If we were just sitting in my room, shooting the breeze, he played the radio.
It was kind of interesting, kind of fun, not much more. Then, come the last few weeks of 1975, the radio started playing this:
For the next few months, wherever I was, if my nephew wasn’t there to turn the radio on, I turned it on myself. And, for the next few months, I never had to wait more than half an hour to hear “December, 1963.”
Then, as such things happen–as I did not quite yet know such things happened, never having stopped to think about it–it no longer came on every half hour, or even every hour.
Not long after that, it didn’t come on every day.
And not too long after that, it didn’t come on at all.
I thought it might be okay, though, because, in the interval, I had made a discovery.
One day, while strolling through the local Sears store in Dothan, Alabama, I had happened across a bin full of 45’s.
I only knew what a 45 was because my sister left a few behind when she got married and moved out. By a few, I mean three: “Ode to Billie Joe,” “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” and a Little Richard record which was too beat up to play (and hence too beat up to hang on to, which is why the title has slipped my memory…”Tutti Frutti”? “Long Tall Sally”? “Rip It Up”?…the memory hazes…anyway, my sister had good taste).
Now, when I say I knew what a 45 was, I don’t mean I fully grasped the concept.
Oh, no, far from it.
For one thing, I thought they made 45’s to sell to people after a song was played on the radio enough to be considered a hit. That the 45 might be the actual method of distribution to the radio stations that played the music had never occurred to me.
So, in the spring of 1976, I was excited to discover that a 45 which contained “December, 1963,” by the Four Seasons, was actually laying in a record bin in a Sears store not twenty miles from my house, where I did at least have a record player.
I would have been a lot more excited if I had possessed the $1.19-plus-tax required to purchase the 45 or any means of acquiring that sort of cash in the foreseeable future.
Such was not the case.
The first impulse I ever had to buy a 45, then, was accompanied by the first of many similar experiences where the record I held in my hand was beyond the power of my eternally limited purse.
I mean, it wasn’t the sort of thing I had any chance of cajoling my father into buying for me.
And all the money I made working for him went to my college fund.
By “all the money” I mean every last red cent.
What to do?
Start working on the idea that maybe the world wouldn’t end if the college fund was spared a few bucks every now and then? Yeah, that sounded like a plan.
My dad was Scottish. He was also attending bible college full time and we were subsisting on the poverty wages raised by those weekend paint contracting jobs. Negotiations were bound to be difficult and ongoing.
It took me until the summer to wear him down.
We were back in Central Florida by then. Painting the Orlando-Seminole Jai Alai fronton every summer was the big yearly contract that made going to bible college in the fall and winter possible. If you think painting a jai alai fronton during the summer breaks from attending bible college was a contradiction you obviously didn’t know my dad.
And, if you don’t know what jai alai is, let’s just say it’s a sport closely connected to the term “parimutuel betting.”
Anyway, come summer of ’76, my dad and I were in Orlando, staying at the fronton during the week, commuting to my sister’s house in Titusville (that’s on the east coast of Florida and, yes, the same sister with the good, if limited, taste in 45’s).
Negotiations safely concluded, I one day found myself with five dollars of my own money in my pocket.
Nearby there was a mall. (Searstown? Miracle City? The memory hazes….)
Inside the mall, there was a chain record store. (Camelot? Record Bar? The memory….well, you know what memory does.)
Inside the record store, there was a big bin of 45’s that seemed to have every record in the world, or at least every record on the charts.
On a certain beautiful day in June of 1976–first time I had the chance–I begged a trip to the mall (I was still too young to drive) and found my way to the record bin in the record store.
I had one clear intention.
That was to buy “December, 1963.”
I had the $1.19-plus-tax. I had more than that, enough to buy at least three records that cost that much.
And by then, having cracked the code, there were actually quite a few records I knew I wanted to buy.
But I was determined to make “December, 1963” the first 45 I bought with my own money.
It didn’t happen.
It didn’t happen because there was a little card in the empty slot where “December, 1963” 45’s were being stored and the little card had the number 15 crossed out next to an order date two weeks before.
Seems they crossed out the number next to the order date when they sold out. There were a lot of dates on the card, with a lot of numbers crossed out going all the way back to December of the previous year. All the numbers were crossed out. They had been selling fifteen or more copies of “December, 1963” every couple of weeks for six months straight.
It was clearly going to be at least two more weeks before I got back to the record store and while I was pretty certain they would be reordering (fifteen copies? in two weeks? six months after the record came out?…yes, they would be reordering), I had no confidence they wouldn’t all be sold out again by the time I got back.
And while there were other record stores around, since I couldn’t drive myself, there was no telling when I would see the inside of one of those.
What to do?
Swallow my disappointment and look for other records. Obviously.
Which was how, a month or so before I found a copy of “December 1963” in a Woolworth’s (right next to the jai alai fronton as it happened), this became the first 45 I ever bought:
“Fallen Angel,” was not selling like hotcakes. It had scraped the Top 40 (another concept I was just beginning to grasp). Far from playing every half hour, I had only caught it a few times. I knew I liked it, and it turned out I liked it a lot. But that wasn’t the reason I picked it from the bunch–ahead of “Shannon,” by Henry Gross and “Let Your Love Flow” by the Bellamy Brothers–that particular day.
I picked it from the bunch–and first–because it was a Frankie Valli record and I knew he was the lead singer of the Four Seasons. I did not know, at that point, that “December, 1963” was the first of the Seasons’ many hits he had not sung lead on (he sang second lead, behind Gerry Polci).
Had I known, it probably would not have made any difference. The point for me was to honor the Four Seasons and still walk out of the record store with a record in my hand. The closest I could come, on that day, was “Fallen Angel.”
And, for the next thirty years, that was basically a footnote in my record collecting history: “Fallen Angel” was the first 45 I bought because Frankie Valli was the lead singer of the group whose record I really wanted to buy. And I really wanted to buy that other record in part because it had an impossibly cool vocal sung by someone other than Frankie Valli.
The memory of settling always did bring a smile…and a shake of the head.
This crazy world. What can a poor boy do?
You only get the buy your first record once. Then you gotta live with it. Who knew.
For thirty years, all that was just another stone laid in the pathway of life.
Then came 2005. Thirty years gone by.
In 2005–very late in 2005–I decided to give myself a vacation.
Through a weird series of events, I found myself with a windfall that meant I could go anywhere in the U.S. that a thousand bucks could take me. In my world that is a whole lotta money, but, wherever I was going, I wanted it to be worth it, because I also hadn’t had a real vacation in almost six years.
I was leaning toward Cleveland (hadn’t been to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since my last vacation) or San Francisco (hadn’t been there since 1991, when I didn’t get to stay long) or Chicago (1993 and ditto), when, by some freakish chain of coincidences, I was following an internet thread one night and it took me to a rave review of what appeared to be a new Broadway show based on….The Four Seasons?
It’s hard now–after a decade long run, a movie version, a new box set, a hatful of Tony awards and the like–to convey just how shocking this news was at the time.
The Four Seasons on Broadway?
Before that moment, New York wasn’t even on my radar. After that moment, the idea started lighting up my brain.
I hunted around and read more reviews. I investigated hotel and airfare prices. I did mental calculus and then actual addition and subtraction on a scratch pad.
I figured I could just barely manage it.
And I figured I had to, because, well you only live once…and it was the Four Seasons.
I had to come up with a few hundred bucks extra. I had to pre-plan way more of the trip than I had ever planned for any trip before (my understanding was that they didn’t let just anybody in to a hit Broadway show…and that booking a Manhattan hotel was not exactly like stopping off at the Best Western by the interstate). I had to fly in winter (one previous experience, not a good one as I have a habit of developing stopped heads in winter…a stopped head at 30,000 feet is not a pleasant experience…when I did this a third time, in December, 2015, I temporarily lost my hearing).
I began to have second thoughts.
I decided to do a little more research.
I mean, Four Seasons or no Four Seasons, I had never heard anything good about a so-called jukebox musical. How good could it really be?
Before I made this kind of commitment, even for the Four Seasons, I needed to look beyond the hype.
So I asked myself: “I wonder what songs are in this show?”
It seemed an important question because who were the Four Seasons if not their songs? I hadn’t exactly stopped at “December, 1963” after all. Within a year or two of buying my first 45, the Four Seasons had become one of my two or three favorite groups and they had remained that through thick and thin. I had grown used to defending them against all comers–and in those days, there were a lot of comers. To put it bluntly, the Seasons never had the cred that the Beatles or Stones or Beach Boys or Byrds (or any of a dozen other groups) had. For a lot of people (then more than now, though it’s still a problem), they were some kind of early version of Bon Jovi: Sold a lot of records, impressed a lot of girls (and God knows they never count), never got themselves much written about in the proper journals.
Jersey boys indeed.
I knew they deserved better–that they had gotten shafted a bit for lacking a sensitive Brian Wilson-type genius, when dozens of lesser bands had better crit-reps that existed on that and nothing more. And even those who did have something more, even a lot more (think Arthur Lee and Love, think Skip Spence and Moby Grape), still weren’t the Four Seasons.
I knew the Four Seasons and I knew they deserved a hit show on Broadway.
But that still didn’t mean it was a must see.
To make that judgment, I needed to know about the songs. Absent a sensitive genius, the songs would be what such a show rose or fell on.
So I made a point of looking for a song list and was pleasantly surprised to find one. A long one. From an official source (i.e., the show’s website).
Long and reliable then.
So long that it took me more than a glance or two to get to the bottom–by which time I had concluded that they certainly were being thorough. Except for “Silence is Golden”–admittedly a B-side–they had everything in there that I would have insisted on if they had asked me.
And I still wasn’t quite convinced.
Yes they were hitting all the high points. All the songs any Seasons’ lover would insist on. But what about filling in the cracks? In a catalog as deep as the Four Seasons’ shouldn’t there be at least one off-beat pick? One sign of eccentricity? “C’mon Marianne” was nice (speaking of sensitive genius bands, maybe the show would mention how the Doors lifted the intro for “Touch Me,”) but it was still a pretty big hit and available on every major Seasons’ comp I ever saw.
I kept looking for a sign….
And then, very near the end, two or three songs from the bottom of a list of dozens, I saw this:
That’s when I knew I was going to New York.
* * * *
So I went. Had a grand time. Got swept away by the museums and the shows (if I was going, I wasn’t putting all my eggs in one basket!) and the food and all the other stuff people get swept away by if they tourist in New York with at least a little money in hand.
I flew up on a Thursday. I went to a museum and an off-Broadway show on Friday. I went to another museum on Saturday morning and a Broadway show on Saturday afternoon. I saw St. Patrick’s Cathedral by moonlight. I ate fabulous meals in little hole-in-the-wall joints that my dad had trained me to spot back in the days when we traveled together.(“Watch where the Chinese people go,” he told me once when we were in San Francisco’s Chinatown. We did, and, if you ignored the cockroach that crawled out of the phone book on the chipped Formica counter and concentrated on the food, it was beyond belief.) I walked around for two days with a giddy smile on my face. Hell, I even figured out the subways. Not so hard, I found, when you were always going to and from Manhattan (i.e. Grand Central)–another trip, years later, when I made the mistake of chintzing and staying somewhere else, learned me that it ain’t hard to turn into an Out-of-Towner.)
And then, finally, it came Saturday night. The big event…
I wore a black denim shirt and white jeans. I didn’t care if it was after Labor Day. I was going to see Jersey Boys on a Saturday night on Broadway, a month after it opened a hop, skip and jump (or anyway a fast cab ride) from Newark (where at least one Broadway blue-nose had suggested it should have stayed). A month after it opened, Jersey Boys was being heavily attended by a mostly Jersey crowd–by the one group of people in the world who didn’t need to be told that the Four Seasons were every bit as good and important as the Beatles or the Beach Boys.
Give or take a vowel or two, I was, at last, among my people.
And still I wondered.
Would it really be worth all that?
Then the show started with a rap version of “December, 1963,” and I really started to have my doubts.
Then the guy playing Tommy DeVito (Christian Hoff–a few months later he would win a Tony) walked out on stage and announced that was the version that had just been a hit in France.
Thirty seconds later, I said to myself: “This is where I’m supposed to be.”
* * * *
Jersey Boys is a long show. Two-and-a-half hours with a fifteen minute intermission.
By the intermission, I was wandering around the lobby thinking of all the people I wished had been there with me. I was also wondering how it was possible for me to have had such high expectations and see them all surpassed within the first five minutes–and then surpassed again and again.
I wondered if they could possibly keep it up.
Five minutes into the second half I stopped wondering. I knew it wasn’t going to play me–or itself–false.
Then, near the very end, the stage went dark and a familiar chord rose from the orchestra pit…and, in the space of that single chord, I remembered what I had forgotten.
I had forgotten “Fallen Angel.”
Not only had I not thought about it since I arrived at the August Wilson Theater or in the city of New York, I hadn’ t thought about it since I saw it in the show’s song list on-line and knew instantly where I would be a week before Christmas in 2005.
It was the forgetting that made it memorable. If I had been thinking about it all along, or anywhere along, I would have known it was coming–would have been wondering how they were going to fit it in, when, unlike all those dozens of hits known to all, it could not really be part of the Four Seasons’ story.
Turned out it was the heart of the Four Seasons’ story. By the time I heard that first chord and it all came rushing back–1969, 1975, 1976, a month before–I knew a whole lot about the Four Seasons I hadn’t known before and I also knew that the young woman walking across the stage was representing the ghost of Frankie Valli’s daughter, whose death-by-overdose he blamed on an absent fatherhood created, in part, by the fame and fortune he had crawled across broken glass to reach, and in larger part by the three hundred nights a year he played for a decade and more to pay off Tommy DeVito’s seven-figure gambling debts because DeVito had gone to prison rather than snitch on him when they were teenagers back in the ‘hood.
That’s the best moment I’ll ever know in a theater, sitting with two thousand locals who worshiped the Seasons and realizing I was probably the only one who knew what was coming from the first chord–the one unrecognizable, eccentric, off-beat musical selection that was the show’s big payoff. All those dozens of hits, but only one of them was called “Fallen Angel,” so, to fit the harshest fact of Frankie Valli’s life–and Tommy DeVito’s–it had to be there, even if it never made the top thirty.
The show didn’t end there. It ended with the Seasons reunited, rising from the floor at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction (which also served as Valli and DeVito’s personal reunion after years of not speaking) to sing the greatest of the records that had made them the truest American working class heroes between the fall of the original fifties’ legends and the rise of Creedence Clearwater Revival*….
which made #1 in 1964, in the teeth of the British Invasion, as the A-side of my pick for the greatest-ever two-sided single, the B-side of which was…
…the only thing the show was missing.
But, by then, I had forgotten all about that, too. Even with an un-programmed encore of–you guessed it–“December, 1963,” giving me one last reminder that this had been where I was supposed to be, and a three-block hike to my hotel that amounted to levitating above the sidewalk, I knew which highlight I would always remember first.
My only regret is that–like buying that first 45–it could only happen once.
*The fantastic book for Jersey Boys was written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. During one of the early development meetings, Brickman mentioned to Gaudio that he had missed out on the Seasons in the sixties, in part because he had been so heavily engaged politically, especially in protesting the Viet Nam war. Gaudio’s reply was “Well, when you’re writing this show, just remember that my audience were the ones fighting it.” The beat goes on.
I haven’t been able to listen to Elvis all year until this week.
Not even a little.
It wasn’t that he was irrelevant to the unfolding disaster befalling the American Experiment–a disaster which has nothing to do with the outcome of the election, that being just one more mile marker on the road down, though I’ll buy that it’s potentially a sign-worthy milestone at least. It was more that he was too relevant, too near, too obviously nagging the national consciousness, even as the fragile coalition between Appalachia’s version of the Celtic Imagination and the Delta’s version of the African Imagination that formed in his head in the mid-fifties and brought the Promised Land heaving into view off the bow, finally sank beneath the waves without anybody bothering to mention his name over much.
Maybe I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t listen.
Anyway, this week I started again and I started with the Fifties. Figured I’d just get the The Complete 50’s Masters out and let it roll over me, night after night.
Since this was probably the longest stretch I’ve gone without listening to any serious Elvis since the late seventies, re-engaging was an experience….like recovering a lost memory.
Along the lines of, “Oh yeah. That guy.”
I forgot how improbable it all was.
You tend to, if the music isn’t right there in your ear.
Anyway I do, what with all the white noise the world can make crowding in, day after day.
Toward the end of the second disc, just when I thought I couldn’t possibly be gobsmacked any harder, I ran into these three, right in a row:
Elvis the doo-wop singer, who, if that was all he had been, would have been in the conversation with Clyde McPhatter and Dion DiMucci as the greatest of all. (An amazing number of his records would fit the category if they had been recorded by some soundalike and been a career maker, the way “Be Bop A Lula” was for Gene Vincent, or “It’s Only Make Believe” was for Conway Twitty, to take only the most obvious examples.) This, the purest example, might not have become a hit for that imaginary soundalike. But it would have become a collector’s item, which, in doo-wop is maybe more to the point.
Followed by Elvis, the off-hand rockabilly, too smart to compete with Little Richard directly (though he could have, listen again to “Jailhouse Rock” or “Santa Claus is Back in Town” some time), too committed to treat it less than seriously…and a reminder that it was always the off-hand part that made Elvis the first and greatest rockabilly singer…
Followed by Elvis, the white gospel singer, who, if that was all he had been, would have been in the conversation with Jake Hess and James Blackwood as the greatest of all.
It’s been almost a given among the crit-illuminati, ever since his existence increased their value to the Overlords a thousand fold–made them not merely convenient but necessary–that “rock and roll” would have been just as big a deal, just as important, and moved to the center of the culture for three decades just as surely, if Elvis had failed to slip the noose and stayed a truck driver. (I created the “Stupid Stuff People Say About Elvis” category to give just a small taste of their willful ignorance.)
All you ever have to do to make nonsense of that is listen to the actual records and ask yourself, “Who else. then?”
Who else covered that much territory with so much fluidity and ease that it seemed “natural.”
No one else.
The one cold comfort that will be available to the future is the assurance that the boot-lickers, having played their role all too well, will be going down with the rest of us.
The Overlords, too.
As Elvis, the inveterate Bible reader, might have told them:
For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.
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.
I’ve never listened all that close to Bob Dylan’s first two albums until here recently. What changed is that I acquired The Original Mono Recordings box set a couple of years back and I’ve since been able to listen to the legend “busy being born” in clear crystal sound instead of my old battered used vinyl copies.
Even so, I never really bore down on the experience until this week, when I decided to try and put my finger on why I like the first album, simply titled Bob Dylan, which sold 5,000 copies when it was released, so much better than the second, TheFreewheelin’ Bob Dylan.That’s the one that set Greenwich Village on fire on the way to changing the world and all.
It’s certainly not the covers. The cover is the best thing about the second album. It even sort of promises that what’s inside will be the main thing it’s not, which is “freewheein’.”
Even decades of general familiarity (you could end up knowing a lot about Dylan’s second album–like the lyrics to a lot of the songs–just by being alive for the last fifty years) left me unprepared for how safe the newly minted “Bob Dylan” was prepared to play it after that first album flopped.
And, by safe, I mean, of course, vocally. Which, as most of you know, is what matters around here.
Getting to know that first LP in the last year or so has been a revelation, so much so that I wonder how I could have possibly missed it before, irrespective of the quality of my old, used vinyl. It wouldn’t be fair to say Dylan made it sound like he was breathing a revolution (the quality that made so many intellectual gatekeepers underestimate the art that went into the early efforts of Fats and Elvis and Little Richard). But he was still the freest voice to enter popular music since the mid-fifties. And he was mostly singing other people’s songs. As so often happens–as it had happened with Hank Williams and Chuck Berry, among others–you start out thinking it’s the songs, but it’s really the voice.
Nearly as startling as Dylan’s first voice–and the way he used that voice–was his harmonica playing. Not just the fire and dexterity he put into it, but the way he wove it into his singing, as though it were simply an extension of his singing, constantly challenging and enlarging itself.
I know all this is hardly news to long-time Dylanistas who have followed him since whenever. But, however much I’ve loved his mid-sixties music since it first whopped me up side the head in the late seventies, I wasn’t prepared to have what I had imagined to be Dylan-the-Burgeoning-Folkie make such a purely vocal impression and then sustain it for the length of that first album.
And that, in turn, might be why I was/am so unprepared for the restrictions he put on himself when it came time to make his second album. On the first four tracks (which only include “Blowin’ In the Wind,” and “Masters of War”), he doesn’t sound so much like he put his harp in his pocket as somebody shoved it up his sphincter. Sorry, but this doesn’t sound like a man breaking free. Maybe it did then. Maybe the mere fact that he didn’t “sing pretty” was liberating and forward-looking. These days, it sounds almost impossibly affected, the epitome of everything every note of his first album had been prepared to mock–the sound of freedom reduced to the sound of surrender.
And, except for his always cutting way with a talking blues (though he cut even deeper on live shows from the period), he sounds like he’s sleepwalking through the whole thing.
Given what I know about both the purely cynical crony capitalists who are forever lingering somewhere in the background of every inexplicable thing and the highly gullible earnest folkies who snatched up Freewheelin’ and then carried Dylan right up to the moment he stabbed them in the face by “going electric,” I suspect this is the sound of a supremely calculating young man who has judged the odds and accepted what must be done to get where he is going from where he’s been.
It’s also the sound of a man who might be harboring a grudge against more than just the masters of war–a grudge that would carry him right past his core audience when it was finally time to merge the various “Dylans” of these first two LPs into the full might and fury of Highway 61 Revisited.
Heard that way, Freewheelin’ becomes almost as subversive as either Bob Dylan or its own legend.
That’s how genius rolls, I guess–if you’re moving a little too fast…slow down and wait for the main chance.
And, as always, God bless Peter, Paul and Mary and/or Albert Grossman for hearing hits in “Blowin’ In the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”
I not only wouldn’t have, I still don’t. Miracles happen.
This was almost going to be an update to The Story That Never Ends. Recent inductee Steve Miller’s call for more women artists to join him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has evoked a few responses here and there which makes me hopeful there is a groundswell developing that might ultimately benefit some long overlooked artists.
Then again, with friends like these….
Rolling Stone‘s contribution to the conversation is under a title-only-a-committee-of-future-commissars-could-conceive: “Fifteen Women Who Could Be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” (I think we’re about two elections away from whoever came up with that being put in charge of inducing famine in the northern plains’ states…but I digress.)
No, it doesn’t really name “fifteen women”–rather fifteen female acts (several being groups). But we’ll let that pass.
No, it doesn’t limit itself to redressing the legitimate grievance–that a number of actual “rock and roll women” have been given short shrift. It’s littered, instead, with crit-faves from other forms (Joan Baez from folk, Patsy, Dolly and Loretta from country–all good candidates for my recommended category of “Contemporary Influence” but not really credible as rock and roll performers). But we’ll let that pass.
And it does make a pretty good case for the Shangri-Las. That’s always welcome news around here. Admittedly, this phrase is passing strange: “…they’re perhaps the girl group most beloved of critics and rock fans.” I don’t know about fans, but if critics, who make up most of the nominating committee, loved the Shangri-Las more than any other girl group, they probably would have nominated them some time (as they have the Shirelles, the Supremes, the Ronettes and Martha and the Vandellas, all Hall members, or the Chantels or the Marvelettes, both at least nominated in the past). Of course, they should have done just that, but they haven’t, so that part in an otherwise not entirely incoherent paragraph, is gibberish.
But we’ll let that pass.
Have to, for now, because the very next entry is for Dionne Warwick and it reads like this:
Kicking off her career with the wounded, yet stalwart “Don’t Make Me Over,” the voice of Dionne Warwick defined the sound of R&B. Her delicate phrasing and gospel-inspired power resulted in some of the catchiest songs of the Sixties, including a series of collaborations with Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and she became the first African-American woman to perform for the Queen of England in 1968, the same year that the Bacharach-David composition “Do You Know The Way to San Jose” scaled the charts. Warwick had her ups and downs during the Seventies, but her 1985 smash “That’s What Friends Are For,” which she cut with high-powered pals (and Hall of Fame members) Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder, was one of pop activism’s higher points in an era filled with cause-minded tracks.
I don’t normally do interpretations of cluelessness and Bad English, but since no one can be expected to swallow that whole, I’ll take a shot.
the voice of Dionne Warwick defined the sound of R&B…
Well, no one voice ever “defined the sound of R&B,” not even Fats Domino’s or Little Richard’s or James Brown’s or Otis Redding’s or Aretha Franklin’s. Dionne Warwick came pretty close to defining supper club soul, an honorable, if much derided sub-genre, which she more or less invented and which gave both soul and rock much wider audiences than they otherwise might have expected during the heart of the era when those forms dominated both the charts and whatever part of the culture still had meaning. So why not just say that?
Her delicate phrasing and gospel-inspired power resulted in some of the catchiest songs of the Sixties, including a series of collaborations with Burt Bacharach and Hal David…
Her phrasing and power had nothing to do with how catchy her songs were. The catchiness was provided by the aforementioned writers (Bacharach did the melodies, David the lyrics). She inspired those songs and provided their heartbreak. So why not just say that?
…and she became the first African-American woman to perform for the Queen of England in 1968, the same year that the Bacharach-David composition “Do You Know The Way to San Jose” scaled the charts.
This is what’s called a non sequitur. Actually, since it finishes the sentence begun by the previous phrase, it’s at very least a double non sequitur. It could be a triple non sequitur, since the previous phrase quite possibly contains its own non sequitur (power and phrasing having nothing to do, strictly speaking, with the catchiness for which she was not responsible anyway), but my head already hurts so we’ll leave that alone, too. In any case, the catchiness of her songs has, in this purely linguistic context, nothing to do with her being the first African-American woman to perform for the Queen of England (which, in turn, has nothing to do with why she should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as the same honor might easily have befallen, say, Ella Fitzgerald or Nancy Wilson or any number of others who also sang catchy songs and exemplified the various ways in which African-American women could be supper club classy without coming anywhere near “rock and roll,” lest you think I was kidding when I said Dionne invented the “soul” part of that equation or that I failed to clarify that it’s the precise reason she should have been in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame long since), which, in turn, has nothing to do with “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” coming out the same year (that’s best called a coincidence, I think, though other descriptions might apply as well).
[Note: There was a time, not that long ago, when writing like this in a high school English class would have drawn a bunch of red marks and the student would have been required to write it over. There was a time, not that long ago, when the same thing might have happened at Rolling Stone….But we’ll let that pass.]
Warwick had her ups and downs during the Seventies, but her 1985 smash “That’s What Friends Are For,” which she cut with high-powered pals (and Hall of Fame members) Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder, was one of pop activism’s higher points in an era filled with cause-minded tracks.
Okay, I don’t really know what any of that has to do with Dionne Warwick’s worthiness for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (except that the writer(s) may have had a nagging suspicion they had somehow failed to clinch the case with their previous points of emphasis). But I think what it basically means is that they believe “That’s What Friends Are For,” godawful even by the standards of “cause-minded tracks,” is greater than this…
…one of the greatest records–and greatest vocals–ever waxed.
Cause enough, all by itself, for this…
The Thirteenth Maxim: Learn English so that thou wilt not make thy reader’s teeth grind and, in true non sequitur fashion, bring about the End of Days!.
(My favorite rock critic, at 41, the year I was born.)
The earliest memory I retain with any certainty happened when I was four (or five) years old. It was the Christmas season of 1964 (or 1965). My favorite rock critic and and my sister and I were walking through a shopping mall (somewhere in Florida…my memory says Merritt Square, the internet says it didn’t open until 1970 so maybe it was Titusville or even Orlando…I know I wasn’t nine, I swear my memory is at least that clear). My favorite rock critic was holding my hand (or else my sister was). They were piping music through the mall (or whatever it was). I wasn’t paying the least attention to the music. Until I was. Something new and wonderful started playing (or maybe it was the chorus that got me) and I broke away from whoever was holding my hand and started running towards that sound.
The only problem was, the sound was being piped over speakers that pointed from every direction. This probably saved me from getting lost in a bustling Christmas crowd, because, having completely lost my senses, I started running around in circles. My favorite rock critic could no longer run, so it was left to my sister to finally catch me, after which they both kept asking me “What is it?”
I couldn’t tell them.
(My favorite rock critic, my brother-in-law and me, circa the time period in question. Memory says the play list was heavy on Peter, Paul & Mary. Lovely. But they were not who was playing at the mall…or wherever.)
I probably knew the words “music” and “song.” They were concepts my favorite rock critic lived for. But, in that moment, overwhelmed by that sound, I wasn’t able to call up the words. My senses weren’t merely lost but overwhelmed. I was, for the first and last time in my life, experiencing a strange, benumbing combination of physical pain and an insistent inner command to laugh out loud, which, for some reason, I could not obey.
All I could do was keep pointing at the roof of the mall (or wherever it was).
And that was all I was ever able to do.
Years later, when I finally bought the record that was playing over some set of surround sound speakers somewhere in Central Florida in 1964 or 1965 (on an “oldies” 45, which I still have), I didn’t even think to ask my favorite rock critic if she remembered this little incident. Nor did I ever think to ask afterwards. Because I didn’t think to ask, I’ll never know.
She loved the record. I remember that much. My favorite rock critic had killer taste. Just listen and hear…
* * * *
My favorite rock critic never bought records herself (she was into sheet music).
(My favorite rock critic, a little later on. With her sheet music….Or somebody’s.)
There were some kids’ records around the house when I was growing up, and some albums my father picked up at thrift stores, mostly Broadway soundtracks or easy listening instrumentals. I listened here and there after I learned to work the stereo’s record player. If I listened to the radio, it was to Braves’ games or college football. Never the radio. If I knew the words to any pop song, “Snowbird” say, it was from my favorite rock critic’s song books, the vast majority of which were religious. My favorite rock critic arranged and directed church choirs when she wasn’t singing in them or, more likely, in front of them. There was music everywhere at my house. Just not much rock and roll.
The first peak at my own future came when my sister moved out, for the last time, after my brother-in-law came back from Viet Nam. She left her 45s, which consisted of a Little Richard that was too beat up to play (I can close my eyes and still see every single thing on that Specialty label except the title), Gale Garnett’s “We’ll Sing In the Sunshine,” which I liked well enough to learn the words to (and which I still have), and this one (which I also still have):
Unless maybe it can be traced to that experience above (about which more later…reveal at the end!), I don’t doubt my inordinate affection for what, in those days, were still called “girl” singers, dates from the summer afternoons when I was ten, eleven, twelve, when I played “Ode to Billie Joe” ten, eleven, twelve times in a row, day after day, while my favorite rock critic went about her business, never once asking me to stop or play something else or even becoming the least exasperated when I asked her, yet again, for the tenth or eleventh or twelfth time “What does it mean?”
“There were a lot of rumors when it came out,” she would say. “But nobody really knows.”
I was convinced, in those days, that my favorite rock critic, the most honest person I knew (or ever would know), was keeping some horrible adult secret from me. I was convinced of it, even though she never had the least bit of trouble telling me I was too young if I really was. Such is the power of the Gothic tale.
By the way, I’ll save my deep thoughts for a “How Much Can One Record Mean” post some day, but this much I can say here: There are still a lot of rumors about what “Ode to Billie Joe” means. And just because Bobbie Gentry has taken a stab at explaining it herself, doesn’t mean anybody really knows.
* * * *
You might think that, having been captured by a 45, I would seek to replicate the experience. I did not. I’m not sure why. Money would certainly have been an object. I didn’t have any. I did not get an allowance. Any money I made working for my father, from nine to nineteen, went into a college fund (which would remain untouched and, in its interest-bearing entirety, one day pay for exactly three months at university…there were reasons we did not buy many records at my house).
But it’s just as possible that, being surrounded by music in the house, I did not feel any great need to seek it elsewhere. And still more possible that being captured by that particular 45 put a brake on what might otherwise have been my natural development.
In any case, time passed, and we moved to another part of the state. For reasons I went on at some length about here and here and here, I became a record junkie.
And a smart aleck.
One day, in my full-blown smart-alecky phase–sixteen maybe, or seventeen–I was listening to the radio in my room (yeah I listened to the real radio by then, a lot). The local Top 40 came out of South Alabama and played a mix of current hits and oldies. It was a Saturday and me and my favorite rock critic were cleaning my room and one of Roy Orbison’s ballads came on. “Only the Lonely” if memory serves. Roy at his greatest. Elvis’ favorite singer. I thought I’d play a smart aleck joke on my favorite rock critic, who was a huge Elvis fan, so I spent two and a half minutes convincing her it was Elvis. She didn’t buy it at first, but I was so convincing, and she so much believed I was sufficiently like her that I wouldn’t treat such a thing frivolously or pointlessly, that she finally accepted my truth. Elvis sang “Only the Lonely.”
One of Elvis’s ballads came on. God help me if it wasn’t “Love Me Tender,” which, perhaps sacrilegiously, I’ve never really considered primo Elvis and, as a record, wouldn’t consider in the same league with “Only the Lonely” even to this day.
Except…The joke, my joke, was about the voices. Not the records.
As my favorite rock critic liked to tell people with a smile ever after, when she, never I, would bring up the story: “And you could hear the difference. . . .Right away.”
By which she meant, you could hear why Elvis was Elvis, even on “Love Me Tender” and why even Roy Orbison wasn’t, even on “Only the Lonely.”
And, God help me, you could.
That was the last time I tried to play a musical joke on anybody, let alone my favorite rock critic.
But something about that moment made us closer (perhaps I should say even closer) than we had been. I think the shock I felt at being so coyly betrayed by the Cosmos, and the clarity with which I learned my lesson, left her with a feeling that we might meet in the middle on my new favorite subject…that she might yet teach me something about it that couldn’t be learned in books.
She taught me.
One thing she taught me was not to take professional rock critics too seriously. A few years later, I gave her Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train, with which I was very much impressed at the time, to read. Her response to the Elvis part was, “Well, at least he treated him with some respect.” Which was her way of saying he didn’t quite get it, a judgment which time has confirmed. On the other hand, her response to Marcus’s description of Randy Newman’s “Sail Away,” (“a vision of heaven superimposed on a vision of hell”), which I read to her right after I played her the record, was: “Yes, that’s perfect.” Meaning both the record and the description, judgments time has also confirmed.
And she “got” things I didn’t get but someday would: Everything from Grease to, yes, Elvis.
Most of all, my favorite rock critic got voices. Their power, their seduction and, above all else, their cost. The only two voices she ever described as being “like an angel,” were Martin Luther King’s and Karen Carpenter’s. I’m not sure I took that comparison (which she never made directly) all that seriously. Kinda silly really. Until Karen Carpenter turned up dead. Turned out, my favorite rock critic knew, just by listening, who was likely to be chased out of this world by hellhounds. So while I didn’t know if she was wise beyond her years, I soon learned she was wise beyond mine. There was, for instance, no chance anyone raised by my favorite rock critic would ever be taken in by Johnny Rotten (the way to dusty death for me, whatever he meant to you).
Thus, there were some happy days, of which a few still stand out:
One day I was listening to this…
…and she asked me who it was. When I told her, she smiled and nodded and said: “I knew it had to be brothers. Only families can harmonize like that.”
Another day, (the day after I brought it home and played it as incessantly as I’d played “Ode to Billie Joe” once upon a time), this…
My favorite rock critic: “Now who did that song you were playing last night.”
Me: “A group called the Shangri-Las.”
My favorite rock critic (with her familiar smile and nod): “I thought it was them. I always remembered them because they were always so different.”
Another day, this…
…to which, assuredly: “That’s as good as Little Richard.”
Another day, this (just out on the radio)…
The opening chord was chiming as we pulled into a parking space at the bank, me driving (she didn’t), me in control of the radio (she always let me), me ready to go inside, her saying: “Oh let’s listen to this.” To this day, I don’t know whether my favorite rock critic loved the song or just knew I did. She’d have told me if I asked. But my favorite rock critic knew I wouldn’t.
Voices. Or maybe just sounds.
Another day, this…
My favorite rock critic, with her eyes closed, ten seconds into hearing it for the first time and not knowing the Band from Adam: “They must have played together for years to have that kind of timing.”
Voices. Or sounds.
Another day, it might be this…
And my favorite rock critic would say something like “Where do you find these?” and I would be able to recount little tales of the record collector’s art that, among other things, demonstrated that professional rock critics were not always entirely worthless!
(My favorite rock critic in her element. That’s our long-gone stereo behind the chair. I still have the guitar. I can’t play a lick and it’s one of exactly three physical possessions that will have to be pried from my cold, dead fingers.)
Then, one day, it was late in the game, toward the change, when the happy days weren’t so common and were more typified by me playing something like this…
And my favorite rock critic, eyes closed, her own voice racked by age and disease, sighing and saying, “I used to sing like that.” To which my father, befuddled, said “You never sounded like that.” Meaning my favorite rock critic was an operatic soprano, not a soul baritone. To which I said, as gently as I could: “That’s not what she meant.” Meaning even my favorite rock critic never spoke truer.
(My favorite rock critic, near the end of happy days)
Anybody who has followed the blog knows my favorite rock critic was a major Elvis fan.
They may not know that she always thought if she could have reached Elvis somehow she could have saved his life. Tom Petty was among the many who thought the same. I doubt anyone could have, but if anyone could have, I’d have bet on my favorite rock critic before I bet on anyone else.
They may know that my favorite rock critic used to tell stories about singing with the hobos, who eventually taught her to hop trains, in the Salisbury, North Carolina train yard when she was barely older than I was when I had my first musical memory.
They may not know that she started to give me and our pastor’s son guitar lessons but went in the hospital two lessons in for one of her longer stays. By the time she got out, the pastor’s son was on summer vacation. By the time he got back, his father had found a new church. I don’t think either she or I knew that the real reason I didn’t want to take guitar lessons again was that my nine or ten-year-old self–not much younger than she was when she hopped those trains and rode them only to the edge of town–arrived at some subconscious conclusion that guitar lessons equaled hospital visits and there were enough of those already.
That’s how it is, sometimes, when your favorite rock critic happens to be the person who brought you into this world.
If I’m even a little bit better person than I was born to be, I have my favorite rock critic to thank. And wherever she is now, I know she can see and hear my earliest memory–wherever and whenever it was–far more clearly than I can.
And, if she ever thinks about that moment when I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off, wherever and whenever it was, I know she’s smiling, knowing it turned out okay.
Here’s to then. . . .And to Voices. And sounds.
Happy Mother’s Day!
(Next Up: My Favorite Music to Break Rulers By…By Which I Mean the Kind You Can Use for Drumsticks If You Don’t Have Drums)
It’s always fun to think of some small new twist on a story that’s been done to death. Not too many stories have been worked over more thoroughly than The Story of the Beatles.
But one thing I’ve never done before is try and listen to the music that made them big in England, a year and half before ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and The Ed Sullivan Show sent them into the international stratosphere, in the context of what was happening on American radio in the months must before which we’ve always known they had an ear for.
How much of an ear?
Well, their first album, finished in February, 1963, included fourteen songs. Eight were Lennon/McCartney originals. One was a recent Broadway tune (“A Taste of Honey”). The other five were hits of recent vintage (no fifties’ rocker stuff, as there would be on later albums), three of them straight from the Brill Building (though one of those was by way of the Isley Brothers) and another, “Boys,” that might as well have been.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but outside of “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Please Please Me” and “There’s a Place” (that last, a space even the Beatles never got back to) and, at a stretch “Love Me Do,” the Brill Building cuts, real and faux, are the strongest stuff on the album. “Chains” is solid. The other three (“Boys,” with Ringo’s first recorded vocal and his best until “It Don’t Come Easy,” plus “Baby It’s You” and “Twist and Shout”) all epic.
Having four sides in the can (the A’s and B’s of their first two singles) when they prepared to cut the album, their assigned producer George Martin asked Paul and John what else they had. They answered “our stage act.”
Meaning all that Broadway/Brill Building/Faux Brill Building stuff of such recent 1960–63 vintage wasn’t thrust upon them. It was what they liked. What inspired them.
Which is odd, given that for several decades after, as professional rock criticism bloomed, flowered, withered and died, the basic narrative pretty much held that rock had “died” in those years. (You can still find Greil Marcus going on about it in his latest, which I’m still loving by the way.)
For many reasons, the strongest maybe being because I came in at the Beach Boys (first national hit, albeit one I never much cared for, released June, 1962) and, especially, the Four Seasons (first national hit, August, 1962), I never bought that particular narrative myself.
Later on, when I got to know much more about Roy Orbison and Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke and Brenda Lee and Gene Pitney and Ray Charles and girl groups and surf rock and second-generation doo wop and early Motown and so on and so forth, I bought it even less.
But, amongst all those “nevers” I still never thought to actually play the Beatles first album next to a well chosen anthology of the music that was in their LIverpool-to-Hamburg-to-London air, via Pirate Radio or the BBC or their record collections or whatever other distribution methods were targeting their demographic at the time.
Then, this week, I found myself with my latest additions to Time Life’s year-by-year collection, “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Era” which happened to be the two discs devoted to 1962. And, since I was duty bound to listen to them anyway, I went, “h-m-m-m-m.”
Why not stick the Beatles’ first, Please Please Me between Time Life’s 1962 and 1962 Still Rockin’?
That was Monday, which makes this Segue of the Day a week late and a little bit of a cheat, but what’s a blog for if you can’t bend a cheap concept like Time out of shape once in a while to suit a narrative?
Anyway, it sent me off on that whole tangent I mentioned in my other posts this week, and I might still have one or two posts to go before I exhaust that particular day.
The day itself didn’t exhaust me. I found it pretty exhilarating
Because listening to a multinational corporation’s repackaged definition of what the Beatles were trying to fit into as they climbed their first mountain made both experiences bigger and better.
In the first place, I learned something.
Listening to all this music thrown together, I could finally begin to understand the belief held by so many about rock’s “demise.” There are 44 tracks on the two Time Life collections and, even with the names I mentioned above being mostly absent (except for Gene Pitney), the period was heavy on reaching for quiet spaces. That wasn’t quite the rejection of Little Richard and Chuck Berry so many assumed. More like a broadening of perspective. But I can see how some might have been fooled.
Because while there are rockers (the Isley’s “Twist and Shout” among them, though it doesn’t rock like the Beatles, who tended, along with everything else, to be smart about choosing their battles), the major emphasis is on introspection, heartbreak, longing.
That really shouldn’t be surprising.
These are the kind of things you might expect the era’s outsiders: black people, urban immigrants, girls, perhaps even the occasional hillbilly (throw Bruce Channel’s “Hey! Baby” up against “Love Me Do” some time if you need evidence history doesn’t always move in a straight line even in the short run), to be especially invested in communicating as a dual language: part public, part secret.
The Beatles certainly didn’t miss that. A lot of that first album, including something as joyous and up-tempo as “Please Please Me,” reaches for those very same qualities. Sometimes they missed. Several cuts tend to commodify rather than amplify the melancholy, skate over it rather than deepen it (something else they would also always be very good at and which the public accepted enough, in the immediate wake of February, 1964, to make cuts like “P.S. I Love You” and “Do You Want to Know a Secret” into big hits–what happened with the Beatles, there was a reason they called it Mania).
But about half the time, they grabbed hold. On top of which they, or somebody, had the sense to start and end strong. “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Please Please Me” frame the first side of the British debut LP; “Love Me Do” and “Twist and Shout” the second.
All to the good.
Believe me, coming out of Freddy Cannon’s “Palisades Park” and Don and Juan’s “What’s Your Name” (both wonderful) at the end of the first 1962 volume, “I Saw Her Standing There” really is a leap in the dark, a rush that feels like “What’d I Say” must have felt in 1959 or “Tutti Frutti” must have felt in 1955. In fits and starts at least, Please Please Me still sounds like some sort of revolution.
By the end, with this…
closing the record*, it becomes possible to think Americans must have been flat out deaf and stupid not to respond to the various attempts to sell the Beatles over here throughout the latter months of 1962 and all of 1963.
That, in fact, is just what I was thinking.
But then I put on the second Time Life disc.
And it started with a reversal of form: The Beatles’ quiet-place-bleeding-into-a-loud-place becoming a loud-place…
bleeding back into a quiet place…at a party no less…
And I was yet again reminded that the competition in early rock and roll was literally insane. That maybe the miracle wasn’t so much the Beatles didn’t make it here sooner, but that they made it at all.
In the Contours’ Detroit, after all, and Sam Cooke’s Chicago-or-L.A., and a whole lot of other American spaces, they might have gotten lost in the crowd.
Well, until Rubber Soul anyway.
By which time they probably would have had other jobs.
*Sorry, no decent studio cut was available. Even YouTube isn’t perfect.
This year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions will take place this weekend. There’s been some predictable kerfluffle about Ringo Starr’s second induction (this time in the “Musical Excellence” category, this in addition, of course, to his induction with the Beatles). You can look it up on the net if you’re interested but it’s basically just politics as usual (something about the deal finally going down when Paul McCartney agreed to do the induction if it happened and then making cheeky comments about the simplicity of it all after it did happen…meaning who knows what really happened.)
This is not actually about that. Ringo’s not the first insider to benefit from his connections at the Hall nor will be be the last (or, I suspect, least deserving). It’s a human institution after all.
But we shouldn’t forget that plenty of others are more deserving. Plenty who haven’t been inducted once…which really ought to finally, at long last, become a major criteria in the Hall’s very human future.
So, in the spirit of improvement and striving ever upward and onward, I’ll post my top ten (of many) picks for future recognition in the Musical Excellence category with a list of their basic credentials and an understood “Visionary Spirit” implied next to each name (I didn’t include Glen Campbell since I already got into that recently and holding it to ten is strain enough as it is):
Thom Bell (Producer, Writer, Arranger):
The greatest record man of the 1970s. Would be extra nice if he were inducted with his frequent songwriting partner Linda Creed, if only because there’s no way she’ll get in otherwise.
Pick to Click:
Leslie Kong (Producer, Entrepreneur, Talent Scout, Trailblazer):
There are other great and deserving Jamaican producers. But, whenever the local music broke off the island in the age of its transcendence, it was Kong’s beautiful records–“The Israelites,” “Long Shot Kick The Bucket,” “Vietnam,” significant portions of The Harder They Come soundtrack–forever leading the way.
Pick to Click:
Jackie DeShannon (Singer, Songwriter, Scenester):
With Sharon Sheeley, half of the first successful all-female songwriting team in the history of American music. On her own, the spiritual godmother of “folk rock” and “singer-songwriter” and relentless behind-the-scenes promoter of both Bob Dylan and the Byrds long before it was cool…even behind the scenes. A member of the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame who was, against all odds and all sense, an even greater singer.
Pick to Click:
Joe South (Singer, Songwriter, Producer, Sideman par excellence):
Worthy for his studio session work alone and writer of as many standards as say, the already inducted Laura Nyro (more than the already inducted Leonard Cohen…I could go on). Beyond that, he made records on his own that embodied the best spirit of a great, turbulent age like little else.
Pick to Click:
Jack Nitzsche (Writer, Arranger, Producer, Sideman, Cynosure of Cool):
One way or another he was in the marrow of career-making and/or groundbreaking records made by practically everybody: Phil Spector, the Wrecking Crew, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Monkees, Neil Young. Oh yeah, he was also the musical supervisor for The T.A.M.I. Show, which ought to be enough to punch his ticket if he had spent the rest of his life at the beach.
Pick to Click:
Al Kooper (Writer, Producer, Sideman, Raconteur):
This category could have basically been invented for Kooper and frankly, I don’t know what they’re waiting for…Oh, that’s right…McCartney was gabbing with Springsteen and they got to talking about Ringo and one thing led to another and…Oh well, Kooper should be in if he never did anything but play the organ on this little number…
In the 1950s alone, he produced “Tutti Frutti” for Little Richard and “You Send Me” for Sam Cooke (pictured with Blackwell above). He did more–lot’s more. But, really isn’t that enough?
Pick to Click:
Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams (Writer, Producer, Singer, Mastermind, Keeper of the Cosmos’ Most Closely Guarded Secrets):
I mean, Lou Reed is being inducted (for the second time) this year for being…interesting. Well, that and being dead. But believe me, alive or dead, he ain’t nearly as interesting as the man who, in his own inimitable words, sang about “sex, niggers, love, rednecks, war, peace, dead flies, home wreckers, Sly Stone, my daughters, politics, revolution and blood transfusions (just to name a few).” Then again, neither was anybody else.
Pick to Click:
Chips Moman (Writer, Producer, Entrepreneur):
He ran the studio with the best name: American. Where Wilson Pickett came to do a ballad. Where Dusty Springfield came when she came to Memphis. Where Elvis came when he came back to Memphis. Where, for a few years, the world came. Believe me, whatever that little studio’s faults, if the world still had such a place, we’d all be a lot better off.
Pick to Click:
Willie Mitchell (Writer, Producer, Band Leader, Sideman, Entrepreneur, Hit-Maker):
The spirit of Hi Records (home of Al Green, O.V. Wright and Ann Peebles in the last truly powerful moment of southern soul’s grip on the national spirit) during its reign of glory.
Pick to Click:
There’s a nice, appropriate way to end a list could be a lot longer.
Suffice it to say there’s a lot of work left to do before the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is everything it should be. Hope they get started soon, I’d like to live to see it.