Big doings here: My life in a hundred albums. No limits on what an “album” is as long as it’s a self-contained statement. Vinyl or CD. LP or (possibly) EP. Box set, large or small. 2, 3 or 4-record sets. Comps, Live, Various Artists. The only qualification necessary is it has to have been a big part of my life at some point and to still hold up.
That being the criteria means it will only consist of music I actually listen to. That means heavy on Rock and Roll, Country, early Jazz, post-war Blues, Reggae and Pop, with heavy emphasis on the Age of Rock and Roll America which stretched precisely from the day Fats Domino’s left hand, a piano and a recording mike first came together in the same room to the day Kurt Cobain blew his brains out . I don’t anticipate any Hip-Hop being included (though a few were considered). Punk either, though I’m still considering London Calling (which aficionados don’t consider Punk anyway). I also won’t limit the number of entries an artist can have. It’s my life. If I prefer defending it with a lot of Al Green and Patty Loveless, well, so be it.
That said, I promise there will be music representing every decade from the 1920’s through the 2000’s.
The rankings won’t mean much outside the top twenty or so. Beyond that they’ve been arranged to tell a story, partly mine, partly American Music’s, partly America’s period. I’m confident that if I did this again in five years–or twenty–the albums would remain largely (though of course not entirely) the same.
Why such a list and why now?
Good question. The concept’s been brewing in my head for a while. It got a kick from Rolling Stone’s latest “greatest ever” list which ran to 500 and, in the usual manner of such lists, only more so, seemed to manage the impossible task of being at once paltry, obvious and arbitrary. I’ll try to do better than that. Feel free to let me know how I’m doing.
When I acquired it: Early 80’s, by osmosis (a process all record collectors understand).
Why I acquired it: Aw, look at that cover, the face that launched a thousand Pop Tarts.
Other rankings: Christgau’s Consumer Guide B+
She was sixteen. The marketing made her look twelve. For the record itself, Stiff’s Liam Sternberg assembled a crack band and threw the history of rock and roll at her: Stax soul, Del Shannon (by was of the British Invasion), Elvis Costello, Dusty Springfield, a weird, country-ish item called “Wildwood Saloon” (where you shouldn’t go drinking–I told you to pay attention to that face).
She threw it all back without blinking. I didn’t catch her in the moment but even years later it seemed like we must have dreamed her up out of equal parts Tanya Tucker (to whom she bore an uncanny vocal resemblance) and Nabokov. The first true rock and roll Lolita.
It was all a bit of a sham. She’d been an ice-cold Show Biz pro from the age of three. Straight out of Akron, her first big gig was touring with Mickey Rooney.
To the heart–this heart anyway–it’s never mattered. It melts when the needle drops on any of her four excellent LPs but especially this one. Stardom eluded her, somewhat mysteriously. Her version of “Shadows of the Night” (from her third LP…and Then He Kissed Me) preceded the mighty Pat Benetar’s hit…and wasted it. The Show Biz Kid had the rare gift of singing from inside a song, the gift that can’t be taught. She was out of the music business by 1984, just in time to watch Tiffany’s management copy her mall-kid persona and touring schedule and ride it to the big-time. After that, the Pop Tarts began raining down like hard-candy hailstones and didn’t stop until the culture had been beaten to the field of bloody pulp that surrounds us still.
Rachel did fine. She moved on to TV, made a fortune writing and producing (Dharma and Greg and George Lopez among many others), and eventually bought Madonna’s house, which she later sold for a cool 4.8 million.
I wonder, though, if she sometimes lies awake nights and wonders, like so many of us who know none of her successors can hold her coat, what might have been?
A concept LP about the joys, perils, and traps of rock stardom from a man who had seen more sides of the story than anybody but Elvis and, like Elvis, would find the road ending in the trap of an early death. I suppose it was possible in 1972, with E and Chuck Berry also back at the top of the charts, to think there would be more hit singles like the title track and ho-hum. But there weren’t and Rick doesn’t sound like someone who took his “comeback” for granted, but suspected it was only a temporary bit of well-earned good fortune. One of the first LPs I bought, because I knew I loved the hit from the radio and because it was cheap in a cutout bin: When I found out, a few years later, that Christgau had given it a B- , it was the first sign that he and I were not exactly going to get along. And it’s greater now, when it’s no longer seemly or excusable to take it for granted, than it was then.
9) Various ArtistsShagger’s Delight (1981)
A fabulous collection of “beach music,” a subset of 50’s R&B and light 60’s soul that Carolina college kids turned into their own little genre in the 70’s. This is heavy on the R&B, though the real keeper is the Kingpins’ “It Won’t Be This Way Always” from the early 60’s and a bridge to the future of a lot more than beach music.
8) Sam CookeLive at the Harlem Square Club (1985)
Released 20 years after Cooke’s tawdry, untimely death, this is the LP that shocked everyone who hadn’t heard his gospel music. I’d heard his gospel. I wasn’t shocked. That’s probably why, although I bought it right away, it took me a long time to hear it for what it was: A sizzling live performance in front of a sympathetic black audience by one of soul’s greatest singers and master showmen. You want to know how and why his loss was felt so deeply by so many, this is the place to start.
7) Sam CookeThe Man and His Music (1986)
Which makes this the place to finish. If I just want to sing along to some Sam Cooke, I still pull 1962’s RCA Best of. But if I want to hear as much of the whole story as I can absorb in one sitting, this double-LP is better than similar length CD-only comps. His box set doesn’t have “A Change Is Gonna Come.” I know it was a rights issue at the time…but any journey that long has to end there. This one does….without leaving off anything from “Touch the Hem of His Garment” to “Everybody Loves to Cha, Cha, Cha,” along the way.
6) Various Artists A History of New Orleans Rhythm & Blues: Volume 1, 1950-1958 (1987)
Ya’ll know I like the democracy of the title–“a” not “the.” And this is the cream of that very large crop even it doesn’t have Fats Domino. The sound of his piano is all over this, even if he didn’t play a lick here (and it’s possible he played any number). What more do you need than that? Heck, the way Shirley and Lee start things off, you’d be halfway through a record of crickets chirping before you noticed anyway.
5) Cyndi LauperTrue Colors (1986)
The version of “Iko, Iko” from the prior LP put me in mind of Cyndi’s brilliant use of it here so I listened to the whole thing….and was again reminded that it’s fine from beginning to end. There was a weird backlash at the time because it only had three hit singles instead of the five spun off She’s So Unusual. Because she had let the Rock side down by not becoming as popular as the Dance/Hip-Hop side’s Madonna at the last minute where those sides were anything like equal. And because it wasn’t the Greatest Album of the Decade! Funny, I thought there could only be one of those. Anyway, the singles were great, including her searing version of “What’s Going On,” (best heard here) which she fashioned as an answer record to Marvin Gaye’s where anyone else with her chops would have insisted on competing…and not even the Greatest Album of the Decade had a moment to match it segueing into an “Iko, Iko” to kill and die for.
4) Jackie WilsonThe Jackie Wilson Story (1983)
My God he was great…”Reet Petite” and the rest of the early Berry Gordy-penned hits, which the Boss used to start Motown, right on through to the early 70’s. This beautifully chosen 2-LP set doesn’t miss a trick or slow down. It’s all great but my favorite is Side Two which kicks off with “Baby Workout” and then turns to his fabulous straight blues singing. The teenage Al Green got kicked out of his house because he couldn’t stop listening to this and Elvis and he redeemed himself by being the only man who could live up to either.
3) Tanya TuckerHere’s Some Love (1976)
Tanya used to keep me up nights–and I mean until the sun came up–trying to figure her out. This was the LP that proved she didn’t need either Billy Sherill or Snuff Garrett to cut monster hits, her first really adult outing. Her wild child image has been so enduring it’s easy to forget how much she contributed to the new style of Countrypolitan. This one contains a lot of hidden gems and, like many of her LPs from this period, is not on CD. Hey Bear Family, get with it. I wanna stay up all night again!
2) Gary “U.S.” BondsFrank Guida Presents U.S. Bonds Greatest Hits (1981…I think)
If this wild ride through the swamp had been produced in New Orleans or Memphis or some other pre-qualified place it’s hard to imagine Guida, Bonds and Gene Barge not having higher profiles maybe even Hall of Fame profiles. Because it came from Norfolk, Virginia, no such luck. Too bad because it can make your day.
1) RaspberriesRaspberries’ Best: Featuring Eric Carmen (1976)
I swear I didn’t plan it this way, but this set ends where it began: with a 70’s-era concept LP about rock stardom. Only this time, it’s all about the dream of getting there, with “Overnight Sensation,” the consummate lyrical and emotional expression of the ideal, resting in the middle. It’s brilliantly programmed and every time I put it on the turntable and remember how close they came without quite making it, I have to laugh to keep from crying. Other people in my generation had “punk.” I had them. It was just enough. And this stops just short of Eric Carmen going solo and sending me into a black hole of depression!
If you want to know what it was like to live through the 70’s listen to War’s great albums If you want to know what the lost possibilities of the 70’s felt like, listen to this.
Especially before J.T. Taylor joined, they flirted with a kind of anonymity: each member interchangeable within the collective and the collective interchangeable within the form (which in the beginning was funk, funk, and nothing but the funk–meaning the white boy intelligentsia was all too happy to define them out of existence).
They were too good for that to last and, over the long haul–which this strictly chronological delight traces step-by-step–they helped define funk, disco, even the new R&B ballad style. And, for all that, there’s no way to get to the bottom of “Celebration,” which seems lighter than air the first hundred times you hear it on the radio or some comp and, here, late at night on the headphones you wear so you won’t wake up the neighbors, reveals itself as one of the greatest and deepest arrangements in the history of rock and roll. Meaning, around these parts, the history of great and deep arranging, period. Try it some time.
9) Desmond Dekker Rockin’ Steady: The Best of (1992)
A recent re-acquisition (among several on this list that were lost in the Great CD Sell-Off of 2002)–and I can’t even believe how much I was missing. My vague memory was that, after all the early Leslie Kong-produced stuff everybody knows are great (“007” “The Israelites” “It Mek”) there was a bit of a tail-off. If anything, he got better. This is the most readily available comp and, while I suspect it only scratches the surface–nobody this consistent on the singles, across decades, ever fails to have hidden depths–it’s still a lot to take in. For at least these twenty cuts, Dekker belongs in the company of the reggae giants, with Marley and Jimmy Cliff and Toots Hibbert.
And, lest we forget, it was he, not they, who broke the music off the island.
8) Patty LovelessUp Against My Heart (1991)
Between 1988’s Honky Tonk Angel and 1997’s Long Stretch of Lonesome, which preceded her first unofficial retirement, Loveless released seven albums. This is the only one that didn’t go gold or platinum so naturally it’s my favorite…not to mention one of the greatest vocal albums of the twentieth century. The significance to her career–and the direction of country music ever since–was not slight. This was her fifth album and fifth albums are about where sawdust-on-the-floor acts are supposed to give a little.
It must have occurred to somebody that she was digging in instead of selling out. A label change, throat surgery and her first “comeback” were in the offing–and she would take digging in further than anyone has in these modern times, (when it really has become gauche), eventually winning every major award, without bluster, without giving an inch, and without playing any way other than nice.
But I still wonder what would have happened–to her and the country–if, with Bill Clinton’s unctuous combination of Sanctimony and Sleaze lurking just around the corner, somebody had the nerve to release “God Will” to the radio….and it had taken off.
7) War All Day Music (1971)
One of the great albums of the seventies. I’m starting to think it might be even greater than its mind-blowing followup The World is a Ghetto, which was the best-selling album of 1973. It’s conceptual, and the concept stretches from “All Day Music” to “Slippin’ Into Darkness” to an early, live version of “Me and Baby Brother,” (called here just “Baby Brother”)–from the afterglow of the just-then-receding Civil Rights movement, to the ominous warning of a present already being robbed of the light, to a future that must, of necessity, betoken a reckoning.
And it flows, brothers and sisters. It flows.
Never more so than when snatches of cross-talk at the beginning of “Slippin’ Into Darkness” recreate a camaraderie every living human can envy as prelude to a lyric that drops us into a situation far too many of us would sell our souls to avoid having to deal with personally.
6) The Mamas & the PapasDeliver (1967) and The Papas & the Mamas (1968)
Speaking of slipping into darkness, it’s funny how one album puts you in a mood for another. I listen to these albums as the second disc of a box set, where they make a seamless transition that amounts to a blessing on the sixties’ present (represented by several stunning re-imaginings of R&B classics on Deliver) turning into a curse on any possible future that might result as The Papas & the Mamas wanders along.
Over the course of these, their last two albums (not counting a listless reunion effort in the seventies), Cass eventually takes over on her way out the door–with a “Dream a Little Dream of Me” that wastes every pre-rock Pop singer to a husk, with a “Midnight Voyage” that closes down the album and the group as swiftly, surely and seductively as “Safe in My Garden” and “Twelve Thirty” (which novelist Steve Erickson once accurately described as an ode to the Manson girls) close down the sixties. And that’s not even taking into account the single line where she sing’s Get on your pony and ride which might be her finest moment.
These days, I listen to this disc a lot.
I mean, with the End so near, why wouldn’t you?
5) Earth, Wind & FireGreatest Hits (1998)
Funk’s most formidable hit machine and this is all of them, rolling one right after the other. (Mix-disc advice: Stick “Serpentine Fire” next to the Beach Boy’s “How She Boogalooed It.” Strap down your mind first. Thank me later.)
People who think EWF lack street cred (mostly white people who mistook George Clinton’s slave humor for Old Testament commandments–as with the Stax/Motown debate, the opinions of actual black people, including George Clinton, are rarely taken into account unless they conform to certain necessary preconditions) function as useful idiots. There’s more evidence on their albums and box sets. I invite you to explore…but this is proof enough.
4) The TokensWimoweh! The Best of (1994)
Another recent re-acquistion–disappointed that it didn’t have “He’s in Town” (though that at least proved I hadn’t somehow missed or, worse, forgotten it, and gave me an excuse to add it to the Diamonds in the Shade category). What’s left after “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is still pretty spectacular. One can hear how, with a break or two, they might have been much bigger. Maybe not as big as the 4 Seasons, for whom they cleared the ground…but bigger.
Instead, the sixties happened. This is a nice trip to the land of what might have been.
3) The SkylinersSince I Don’t Have You(with Bonus Tracks) (1991)
(Another recent re-acquisition–it’s been that kind of year.)
A vehicle for Jimmy Beaumont, a doo wop genius who was really a blue-eyed soul genius arrived half a decade early. This is nearly all riveting. The killer soprano who augments the sound, occasionally taking it over, is Janet Vogel. She would hang over the proceedings like a ghost even if you didn’t know she committed suicide in 1980.
On these records, she is not alone in sounding like she already knows something you don’t. Killer stuff.
2) Barry WhiteAll-Time Greatest Hits (1994)
They could have called it “quittin’ just ain’t my stick.” It’s too bad Barry became known as the Maestro of Sex because he was really the Maestro of Devotion, who understood how important Sex was. I’m with Marvin Gaye in regarding him as one of the deepest spiritual artists. Some people understood–this never, ever quits and, released nearly two decades after the Maestro’s hey-day, it went double-platinum. You want to go really deep, catch “You See the Trouble With Me’ and “Oh What a Night for Dancing,” but even the most heavy rotation hits have never worn out and never will….and you talk about arrangements? Jesus, these don’t even call attention to themselves when you’re concentrating on them and nothing else.
Or at least trying to!
1) Various ArtistsUltimate Seventies: 1973 (1990)
One thought that struck me listening to nearly everything on this list, but especially to Barry White, was how everybody used to sound big.
Music only rides three basic trains: Melody, Rhythm, Trance. Pitchfork‘s recent list of the 200 Greatest Albums of the Eighties had a link to a key song from each album. That sort of thing is one of the great blessings of the modern age. Once upon a time, when a critic waxed lyrical about some obscure recording, you had to sweat blood, time and money to ever hear it. Now, it’s just a click away. Except for the few dozen on that list I knew (Madonna, Bruce, Michael, Prince, Cyndi, the Go-Go’s) I clicked every single entry (something north of a hundred and fifty) and finished exactly one (a song by the Replacements I’m not the least bit haunted by already having forgotten the name of even though I swore I’d try to remember).
For all the rest, be it hip-hop, rap, grunge, punk, post-punk, indie, hardcore, speed metal, dance pop, electronica, post-modern classical or even singer-songwriter (Leonard Cohen was on there somewhere), I developed a pattern.
Click on a link.
Mutter Trance music.
I was aware of the new form of evil moving through the land in the eighties as it happened. I hope that awareness has touched almost everything I’ve written on this blog. But the level of calculation, especially as it related to what had, only a moment before, been Rock and Roll America, the most liberating force in American life, if not American history, never before struck me so forcefully.
Not coincidentally I found myself, a day or two later, wondering what I needed to listen to in order to finish off this list and my hand strayed to, of all places, the Time Life area of the CD shelves.
I picked 1973 because it was supposed to be a nothing year, the nadir--the kind of vacuum that made the Punk and Rap Trances (and the Grunge and Hip Hop trances that followed in their wake)–and the smug pretense their trances represented something besides capitulation–inevitable before the decade was out.
And this collection from the corporate behemoth started with “Loves Me Like a Rock” “Superfly” “We’re an American Band’ “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” And, except for maybe Todd Rundgren and “Hello It’s Me” it rolled all the way to the end with no trace of a trance anywhere–and even Todd Rundgren and “Hello It’s Me” didn’t sound small. It didn’t matter if me or you liked all of this music or none of it–it was the sound that mattered. The sound of somebody–literally anybody–trying to get a grasp on a moment that was huge, not because of your private taste or mine, but because we were still desperate to be caught up in some larger story and to have music represent that desperation.
And now, like everything from 1980 onward that wasn’t a throwback, we have….smallness.
Jesus. You artists of the present (the ones that reach the radio anyway).
You shameless fronts for suits and machines.
“Midnight Train to Georgia” is one thing. Nobody expects you to live up to that.
But you’ve made Stealers Wheel and Seals and Croft sound epic.
How am I supposed to forgive you!
Take it Marvin…Save me Brother! Sing Track 18 for Barry and all the ladies and shut down the trance lords forever. Make them ashamed:
“Fallin’” Connie Francis (1958) #30 Billboard #39 Cashbox Recommended source: Souvenirs
Connie Francis was a brilliant pop singer who, because she was the right age for it in the late fifties, got marketed to the rock and roll audience–and pulled it off. Not many waked that path with any real success. Bobby Darin for sure. Pat Boone sort of (his success was undeniable–for all kinds of musical and social reasons, his relationship to rock and roll was far more dubious than Darin’s or even Connie’s, but that’s a story for another time).
If you accept her as rock and roll–which is not much more a stretch than accepting Italo-American women who came in her wake, from Nancy Sinatra to Madonna Ciccone (lots don’t, I sometimes do, though Connie remains an enigma)–then she was the music’s first female superstar, beating Brenda Lee to the Top Ten by two years.
Yet, if Brenda is obscured now, Connie is all but forgotten. Listening to the first disc of her box set Souvenirs, which I just reacquired, more than fifteen years after the Great CD Selloff of 2002 (aka, The Second Worst Mistake of My Life–the first involved a girl), one can almost hear why.
Despite her remarkable talent, it didn’t seem the industry knew quite what to do with her. Records that would have fit right in–and possibly been big hits a few years earlier–sounded staid and old-fashioned in 1955 and ’56, even though she was still in her teens.
After ten straight stiffs (somebody must have believed in her), “Who’s Sorry Now” finally put her in the big time, reaching #4 on both the Pop and R&B charts in 1957. There was another stiff and a modest hit before she followed up with 1958’s “Stupid Cupid,” a novelty that sold entirely on her voice and didn’t necessarily point to any discernible future.
A few months later, in early 1959, “My Happiness”–an early and excellent example of vocal double-tracking (mostly available to singers who were really on-pitch in those days)–went to #2, established her basic persona for good, and cemented her position as a major star, a position she would hold until the arrival of the Beatles. (From “Stupid Cupid” onward, twenty-seven of her next twenty-eight singles went Top 40, with thirteen going Top 10 and three to #1.)
You don’t exactly need a calculator to count the vocal stars who could match that success between 1956 and 1963 and to count the women you only need to count Connie and Brenda.
But the record released between “Stupid Cupid” and “My Happiness” is one of history’s intriguing near misses. “Fallin'” was a bluesy, adult vocal married to a Tin Pan Alley-style lyric (not as good as top level Tin Pan Alley but not bad). It stalled in the lower half of the Top 40 and was promptly forgotten. If it had broken as big as “My Happiness” did with the very next release–if the lyric had been as good as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” or “Blue Moon,”–who knows what possibilities producers would have sensed in Francis’ voice? Hits do clarify things!
It’s a fine record in its own right. And the more pop-sounding records were plenty good.
But boy would I love to hear her on an album’s worth of this stuff:
All secret police forces come to the same end.
All who believe in this country’s values must vote for Democrats this fall. Policy differences don’t matter right now. History has its eyes on us.
James Comey (July 17, 2018)
One of the interesting aspects of the last two years has been counting up all the ways ordinary citizens–who tend to vote straight party tickets ninety percent of the time NO MATTER WHAT–pretend that political party loyalties matter the same way inside the beltway and the permanent D.C. bureaucracy that was built to manipulate them.
I can’t say how many folks I’ve encountered who thought there was some kind of significance, for instance, to James Comey (or any number of others) being “life long Republicans.”
He’s now joined dozens of other “life long” Security State assets of both parties in admitting how much that means.
I would hammer out a warning to liberals all over this land…Be wary of such support, lest they do for you what they’ve done for “conservatism.”
I’m learning. This is probably the most perverse album ever released by a major star. Dylan’s previous three albums had all produced Top 40 singles (as would his next).
Despite Harding selling well, it produced no hit singles (though Jimi Hendrix later took “All Along the Watchtower” for a ride up the charts with a Cover from God), and seems to have been conceived as some kind of throwback to the days when nobody could imagine Dylan having hits of his own. You could hear it as the same kind of spitball to his rock and roll audience as “going electric” had been to his folk audience.
I’m a sucker for Dylan’s Rock and Roll Voice, not as much for his Folkie Voice.
Maybe for that reason it took me years to hear this–and this last year for it to become a go to.
Or maybe the times they’ve just a’ changed.
9) Arthur BakerGive in to the Rhythm (1991)
Baker was a big name in the early days of the remix craze. Since I’ve never been into remixes, I’m not sure why or how I came to have this laying around for years. This is the first time I’ve listened to it in ages–maybe the third time ever. Mostly, I like it without loving it, a reaction I often have to music that was made more for dance-floors than headphones. I wonder, though, if a single side ever sunk in, whether it would unlock the key to the rest? As it stands, I’d rather listen to Madonna remixes, which are the only ones I’ve ever found revelatory.
8) Various ArtistsLouisiana Roots: The Jay Miller R&B Legacy (1998)
Jay Miller was an avowed segregationist who nonetheless ran an integrated studio throughout the early years of rock and roll in the Jim Crow South and recorded a number of classic r&b sides of which this is a generous selection. Like a lot of off-shoot projects that acquire a gut-bucket reputation based on the idea that relatively obscure music must be tougher than what reaches the mainstream, this one has more nuance and a lighter touch than you might expect. I can’t say much of it is transcendent but it’s consistently enjoyable and, given the predilections of Miller’s politics, a testimony to mankind’s thoroughgoing perversity. You’d never guess how he felt based on the sounds he made!
7) Harold Melvin and the Blue NotesIf You Don’t Know Me By Now: Best of (1995)
One of the great collections of 70s soul. They could probably sustain one twice as long, but, given the number of long (12″) cuts, this is still generous and a fully realized journey. Of course, Teddy Pendergrass is the main show, but the Blue Notes were also the recipient of some of Gamble and Huff’s most startling arrangements (I wrote about “Wake Up Everybody” here), including “I Miss You” which, in its full version is almost unbearable, coming as it did at the moment when Black America seemed within sight of achieving a level of integration that transcended mere law and politics. You can still hear that possibility whispering close here. Once in a while, you can hear it shouting…and wonder just how it was we missed out on the Promised Land and came up with this unholy mess instead.
6) John LennonLennon Legend: The Very Best of (1997)
Lennon’s first two solo albums stand on their own and his box set isn’t a slog. The album released just before his death remains hard to hear through the haze of murder and grief it seemed designed to disperse. Hence, when I want to hear him without the Beatles, this is usually where I go. It doesn’t all work. As agitprop “Imagine” gets by on its melody (and the fact Lennon had a sense of humor about how far he was from living out its ideals), but his voice is just about all that redeems “Instant Karma” or “Cold Turkey.”
That aside, this is still a fine document of a man caught out of time. Lennon was the Beatle who most believed in all that “All You Need Is Love” stuff. It’s not surprising that he found the 70s a nasty shock, or that–in interviews and on record–he kept reaching back to something he could never quite find. It’s also not a surprise that, with “Nobody Told Me,” a posthumous hit that was his strongest side in years, he seemed to realize he would never find what he was looking for, even if he kept a phalanx of bodyguards and lived to be a hundred.
5) Various ArtistsBrown Eyed Soul: Vols. 1-3 (1997)
I’m counting these as a single entry, because that’s how I listen to this set, one of Rhino’s best, and that’s how I hear it. As a single experience.
“The Sound of East L.A.” is the music Chicano audiences listened to from the late fifties to the early seventies and someone took care in the sequencing and programming for each volume here to reflect an experience that’s of a piece–and is only enhanced when you listen them all over the course of an afternoon or evening or (like me) in the early a.m. How close it is the actual listening experience of those who lived in those communities in the time covered I can’t say (though I haven’t heard anyone complain). But the mix is beguiling–heavy on off-key doo wop, light soul (think Brenton Wood), garage bands (think Cannibal and the Headhunters and Thee Midniters, both local heroes) and slow-groove funk (think the mellow side of War)–and if it catches you in the right mood, you can find yourself wanting to be part of any world that would respond to this music as though it were the key of life.
Well worth tracking down for those who still think about acquiring music in some form more permanent than a microchip.
Pick to Click: “The Town I Live In” where Thee Midniters make like a west coast Rascals…and, for those three minutes at least, concede nothing.
4) Brenda LeeI’m in the Mood for Love: Classic Ballads (1998)
To say Brenda is underrepresented in the CD era is to concede that the sun rises in the east. This collection barely scratches the surface of her greatness as a ballad singer. But it’s what we have, and, to quote Spencer Tracy “what’s there is cherce.” It’s highlighted by killer original versions of “The Crying Game” and “Always on My Mind” and includes cuts from throughout the sixties, arranged out of sequence so that you can’t miss how centered her style was–how much 1968 was connected to 1960 in her voice if nowhere else. A thousand nuances, then, and always unmistakably her. It’s a perfect album and my only complaint is there could and should be another dozen like it.
3) Robert JohnsonThe Complete Recordings: Centennial Collection (2011)
The essence of Robert Johnson at this distance is how much his voice calls into question whether the arrow of defeat and humiliated pride that’s been driven deep in the heart of Black America can ever finally be withdrawn.
And if the question is left only to his voice, the answer will always be no.
That’s as true on a supposed novelty number like “They’re Red Hot” as it is on “Hellhound on My Trail” or “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,” which even the nonbelievers can’t pretend are jokes.
2) Various ArtistsThe Disco Box (1999)
A fine overview that isn’t quite what it might have been. Disco can sustain four CDs and then some as a listening experience (as well as a dancing one). But the compilers at Rhino were always historically minded, so a pedestrian cut like Carol Douglas’s “Doctor’s Orders” is bound to take precedence over records that were real grabbers simply because it was a touchstone of the form’s early days and a big hit. There’s a bit more of that here than I’d prefer as there’s no reason for a box of this significance to have any filler.
Even so, it sustains almost in spite of itself. The form was always more than its critics acknowledged so a run of soft spots (usually chant records or metronomic “mood” instrumentals) is inevitably followed by a commensurate handful of irresistible highs. And, often as not, the chant records are as great as “Keep it Comin’ Love” and the instrumentals are as non-metronomic as “Fifth of Beethoven.” Besides, with due respect to Barry White* and the white disco of “Dancing Queen” and “December 1963” (all absent here) and short-shrifting the Bee Gees (maybe understandable given they’re not exactly lacking appreciation elsewhere, including from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame which has ignored, say, Barry White), the form’s very greatest vocals are here: Vicki Sue Robinson on “Turn the Beat Around,” Candi Staton on “Young Hearts Run Free,” Jimmy Ellis of the Traamps on “Disco Inferno” and Evelyn “Champagne” King on “Shame,” which in its 12″ version, (not presented here–another complaint is they always settled for the single) calls out the same questions Robert Johnson does…and gives back the same responses.
Outside his two big hits, “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride” Edgar’s reach mostly exceeded his grasp. The fine bands he assembled tended to be stronger than his writing–just not quite strong enough to overcome the lack of inspiration in Winter’s own lyrics and singing (Dan Hartman was another story).
Still, he and his group had an interesting niche–a rare white funk band who retained a foothold in the burgeoning concept of Classic Rock.
And kudos to the programmer.
You could do a lot worse than close down a “last ten” with this. Speaking of arrangements….
Til next time!
*NOTE: White is represented as an orchestra leader, but not as a vocalist.
(Warning: Occasional rough language due to movies being quoted.)
Rosanna Arquette is the only modern actor who is indefinable in conventional crit-illuminati terms and the only artist I know of who consistently broke through the Frozen Silence that descended on the Empire in the eighties (made all the more remarkable by that being the moment her career began).
She might not be the most gifted. There are plenty who think she’s not the most gifted in her own family. But she’s the most disorienting. She might read a bad line straight, just to get it over and done with. Hard not to given the number of bad lines forced on her after Harvey Weinstein ruined her career (you know, “allegedly”).
But she’ll never read a good line straight. I doubt she knows how.
She was partly raised in a commune and I once read/heard that she played in the mud at Woodstock.
Or maybe I dreamed it.
Either way, I choose to believe it.
The only way it would be more perfect is if she was born there.
For the express purpose of destabilizing the future.
The Executioner’s Song (1982)
D. Lawrence Schiller
Originally a mini-series, then edited down to movie length for a Euro-release, later edited back up (though not all the way) for a “director’s cut.” In other words the confusion begins right here, in Arquette’s breakout role as Nicole Baker, the girlfriend and personal addiction of spree murderer Gary Gilmore (they stopped him at two, but he’d have killed everyone in the world to be with her). It’s spare and compelling, one of the best films about the empty moral landscape of post-Viet Nam America. And it establishes one of Arquette’s great themes: She makes men want to shoot other men in the head.
(NOTE: This is finally being released in its original form–Blu-Ray, January, 2018. An interview with Arquette is listed in the extras. Those of us who have settled for blotchy, half-audible YouTube downloads all these years can’t wait to hear her say “You and seven other motherfuckers!” the way it was meant to be heard. UPDATE: 1/28/18 I just checked Amazon and the new release is apparently….flawed. Check there before you purchase. In the meantime, the long version is on YouTube.)
Movie:9/10(for the original cut, which is the only one I’ve seen). Rosanna Arquette Movie:10/10
Baby It’s You (1983)
D. John Sayles
Awe inspiring. Is it a coincidence that the only time John Sayles worked with Rosanna Arquette is the only time he managed to get out of his own way? Or that Arquette is the only post-seventies actor besides Illeana Douglas (also raised in a commune) who “got” the sixties? I mean, how simultaneously liberating and traumatizing it was? Especially for women?
Opinions will vary.
My answers are No, No, No and No.
Not a coincidence that is.
The best film of the 80s and the decade’s best performance.
“Rosanna” Toto (1982) and “In Your Eyes” Peter Gabriel (1986)
Arquette had contemporary romantic relationships with somebody in Toto (who cares who….that it wasn’t the guy who wrote the song probably matters to his mother) and Peter Gabriel. In the moment, everyone knew and admitted these songs were about her and couldn’t have been about anyone else. After her star faded, everyone denied it and insisted they could have been about anyone. Of course they did….and, of course they did. No man likes to admit some woman makes him want to shoot other men in the head….or make his hard-on really, really hard.
Available on YouTube.
After Hours (1985)
D. Martin Scorcese
Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)
D. Susan Seidelman
The movies that “killed” Arquette’s career. (For details, go here.) In After Hours, she played a kook in a movie about a straight (Griffin Dunne) who keeps bumping into kooks all through one long, dark New York night of the soul. First in a line of tormentors that includes, among others, Teri Garr and Cheech and Chong, she was the only one who got onto the film’s oddball vibe enough to match its Dante-esque pretensions. If Scorcese had been bold enough to cast her in all the female roles the movie might be more than a curio.
Still, her performance is worth seeing, especially in light of its natural pairing with the same year’s Desperately Seeking Susan, a big hit that won her a BAFTA, the biggest “award” of her career (typically, it came for a “Supporting Actress” when she’s clearly the lead) and had her playing the straight to Madonna’s kook.
Is it a coincidence that the only time Madonna was as free on-screen (whether in movies, videos, television interviews or taped live performances) as her obsessively contrived image, was opposite Rosanna Arquette playing a woman seeking a small taste of the same freedom? Or that the only movie where she radiated movie star charisma was this one?
The moment in Desperately when Arquette’s repressed housewife, yearning to breathe free, reacts to a simple magic trick, is one of the loveliest in American film and just the sort of scene her tormentor/producers seemed to have bet the Woodstock girl, forever fighting to keep her clothes on, couldn’t play
Movie:7/10 Rosanna Arquette Movie: 8/10
Desperately Seeking Susan
Movie: 8/10 Rosanna Arquette Movie:10/10
These are both readily available.
8 Million Ways to Die (1986)
D. Hal Ashby
Filmed within a fast heartbeat of Desperately Seeking Susan. Anyone who thought the shift from The Executioner’s Song to Baby It’s You was shocking should double-bill Susan and this bleak little enterprise sometime.
I just watched it for the first time in thirty years. I remembered it as a hot mess–such a hot mess that I couldn’t really trust my reaction or my memory.
I mean: Rosanna Arquette? Jeff Bridges? Hal Ashby? How bad could it be?
I’m not prepared, on a second viewing, to say it’s a stone cold masterpiece. But it’s got me wondering. No idea how or why I didn’t respond at all back when. I’m sure I wasn’t aware of the spats between Ashby and the studio that resulted in it being taken out of his hands and made just about everyone involved (including audiences) want to wash their hands of the whole thing.
Forget all that. Time has redeemed it. I’ll be watching often, trying to figure out just how much.
But, if it were every bad thing its detractors claim, it would still be here for two reasons:
1) The newly released 30th anniversary DVD has interviews with several of the key players. A year before the Harvey Weinstein revelations (in which she played a prominent role), you can see and hear the career he and his legion of enablers stole from her in every line of her face and every word she speaks.
2) This hot-mess masterpiece has the ultimate Rosanna Arquette line, which is also the definitive noir line. Jeff Bridges’ slightly addled detective finds her in the house of Andy Garcia’s drug dealer (a scintillating, career-making performance), where she’s been taken by force.
And the moment they’re left alone:
“What’s he want?” “He wants to fuck me and kill you.”
You pretty much have to be there for that, if you want to get Rosanna Arquette.
Because it sounds like a line any good actress could deliver…until you hear her deliver it.
And, to be fair, when it comes time for the men (three in this case) to shoot each other, they mix it up by going for chest shots.
This is now readily available.
Movie:9/10 Rosanna Arquette Movie:10/10
D. Mike Hodges
An effective, moody Gothic from the director of Get Carter. For a Brit, he does a fine job of catching the Southern atmosphere. (Arquette has shown a knack for playing hot-to-trotsouthern chicks–see also The Wrong Man and Big Bad Love.) There is typically fine work from Jason Robards (as Arquette’s father, manager and exploiter) and Tom Hulce (as a small town reporter, trying to get at the truth of a “vision” Arquette’s supernatural medium was granted of a murder). Years before her sister played one on TV, the elder Arquette gets at the quiet heart of a medium’s classic dilemma: someone who hates herself for playing the suckers…only to find even more anguish and confusion when her gift turns out to be real.
On a quick re-viewing, I’m not sure every bit works. But most of it does and the spell is sustained by Arquette’s ability to project her unique combination of sexual arrogance and emotional vulnerability. No one shoots anybody in the head….but one man is shot through her ghost, which is roaming about seeking revenge on Dad for seeing dollar signs in her faraway eyes. And Hulce is prepared to spend his life searching for her, truth be damned.
This is easily available in full screen. For the proper widescreen edition released in Europe, you’ll need a converter or an all-region player.
Movie:9/10 Rosanna Arquette Movie:10/10
The Wrong Man (1993)
D. Jim McBride
For once, the movie’s as mind-bending as she is…and she was never more mind-bending than here. By this point fuck me kill you was like a bass line running through her screen presence from movie to movie. The bass line from “Gimme Shelter” maybe.
And while fuck me kill you may be her definitive line, the consummate Rosanna Arquette scene (and noir‘s) comes here, when she bare-backs John Lithgow as he’s crawling to meet room service, just about a hot minute after she threatened to shoot him in the head.
Available (like quite a few of Arquette’s movies) only for streaming or download on YouTube.
I’ve said it before, I say it again. If Tarantino had switched Uma Thurman’s lead and Arquette’s cameo his whole movie might have come alive, not just the one scene. Instead, he was gutless and too damn stupid to know he was planting evidence against himself.
Assuming there’s a difference.
Readily available, alas.
Movie:7/10 Rosanna Arquette Movie:8/10
Big Bad Love (2001)
D. Arliss Howard
One of those artsy movies that’s so self-consciously unpretentious it defeats itself, despite a fine cast. But it’s a nice coda on Arquette’s Vulnerable Vamp period. The character she plays here has no arrogance. She’s just out for the usual impossible combination of kicks and security. Hence, she delivers real poignance in a movie that too often settles for an approximation.
Law and Order: Criminal Intent(2005) “Sex Club”
D. Alex Chapple
It was inevitable that Arquette would end up trying to evade Goren and Eames. And that she’d make her attempt in one of the series’ best episodes, one that keeps exploding in your face even on a third or fourth (or probably twentieth) viewing.
Peter Bogdanovich plays a Hugh Hefner style “playboy,” transplanted to New York but with his little black book very much intact (if not in his possession). Arquette plays an upper middle class mom who may, or may not, have been the star of one too many mind-blowing orgies.
The perfect part in other words, and at least some of the raw anger she brought to it might have been aimed at her own exploiters–among whom Hefner (with whom she had a longstanding feud over nude photos he published without her consent) was not least. I have no reason to suspect it was the least bit autobiographical, but it’s hard to believe she didn’t identify on some level.
Movie:8/10 Rosanna Arquette Movie:9/10
(Available as Episode 14 from Season 4 of Law and Order: Criminal Intent.)
….As of today, Rosanna Arquette has a hundred and forty-nine acting credits on IMDB. She’s worked constantly, perhaps to compensate for the A-list parts she routinely didn’t get after she rebuffed the industry’s top mover and shaker, perhaps just because she likes working. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a dozen or more golden moments that have eluded me thus far.
I plan to keep looking.
You never know when she’s going to rise up and make one more man want to shoot somebody in the head.
But even if she never has another golden moment or there’s nothing left undiscovered in her vast catalog of mostly cast-off or workaday roles, she’s left something indelible for the future to reckon with.
How many survivors in her generation–molested or unmolested–can say half as much?
I must have been channel surfing. I usually preferred somebody jabbing at my eyeballs with red-hot needles to watching David Letterman define a-holery. Once in a while, though, there was a decent musical guest. There weren’t enough of them for me to check the listings or anything, but if I tuned in at just the right moment, I might linger.
That night I lingered. Cyndi Lauper was on.
It had been two years since her last sizable hit–and that had been a cover of “What’s Going On” that nobody seemed to like but me (and plenty of people thought was sacreligious). I had heard and liked her new one, which would turn out to be her last sizable hit ever, a few times on the radio.
It’s hard now, to describe just how bleak the musical landscape felt then, when, unlike now, a glorious past was still so near that it seemed impossible it could be gone.
Still, the possibility was real: Whitney Houston had defined the new ballad style and it owed more to Kate Smith than Bessie Smith. The seventies’ era artists who had defined the eighties–Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Prince–had all gone a bit stale for everyone but their most devoted fans (of which I wasn’t one, though I liked them all). Any chance that the old New Wave might change the world had gone a-wasting because the big talents–Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello, Chrissie Hynde–either didn’t care about being stars (their excuse) or were afraid of the burden (the stronger likelihood).
Cyndi herself had clearly lost the fake battle the media staged between her and Madonna.
It was the eighties. Selling twenty-five million albums was chump change.
Of course, I wanted her to defy the odds and go on and on–for this one to spark a massive comeback.
So I wouldn’t have changed that dial, no matter what.
But the thing that had me holding my breath was waiting for the answer to the really big question.
Could she hold….that note?
I don’t remember what I thought while I waited. In memory, for years after, she stood still for the whole performance. When I finally thought to pull it up on YouTube a few years back, I guess I was surprised–maybe even shocked–that she bopped around for most of the song. I say I guess I was surprised because, in the memory I had built since, she was still standing in one spot.
So when I pulled it up again today, I was surprised all over.
I imagine if I wait a few more years, I’ll be surprised again.
I don’t think I really saw her the first time even though I had my eyes open. Maybe that’s why I can’t remember how, or even if, she moves.
Because whenever I watch it, then or now, the question is still the same.
Can she really, on live television, sans production tricks, hold that note?
I mean, she can…
But can she really?
I know she can. I know she’ll do it every time, but it still sends a tingle down my spine. Not just because it was her last big hit, and I somehow knew it would be as I watched her that night. But because, even as I imagined her standing still as a stone, I felt like I was watching somebody fight to keep the last ember lit, in the vain hope that it could reignite the fire.
Fight, you know, with every breath. Including the last one.
So NPR compiled a list of the 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women (since 1964). You can read the rationale for the list here. It covers–or, if you like, CYA’s–the usual caveats for such lists. They were a little vague on why a list designed to put women “at the center” should have its starting point defined by the Beatles (Why not Julie London (as great an album maker as Frank Sinatra in the fifties)? Or Billie Holiday? Why not be really transformative and shake up the whole narrative, if it’s the whole narrative that needs shaking? And, if it doesn’t, why not just say so?).
But I’ll leave hashing all that out for some other day.
Today, I’m not gonna carp. Because the Shangri-Las made the list!
I only kind of wish (and I’m not complaining–that album cover above you hangs in my den, framed) they had made it with their other, stronger album (the even better version of Shangri-Las ’65*)…
…which I like to say has cast a longer shadow than Rubber Soul or Highway 61 Revisited.
Or Blue (the Joni Mitchell album that tops the NPR list–like all corporate lists, it’s not long on surprises).
Of course, I say that with tongue in cheek.
But it’s funny what happens in shadows. I just saw Wonder Woman win WWI at the multiplex last week…and she did it looking and acting a lot more like a Shangri-La than anything her original comic-strip creators envisioned.
If you see Bob Dylan’s shadow hovering over the multiplex, where the genuine, authentic, one hundred percent true-life fantasy America persists in re-creating itself these days, be sure to let me know.
I’m not saying it’s a good thing either.
Just that it’s a thing.
An overwhelming thing.
That Wonder Woman, she’s fifty feet tall.
For now, though, I’m gonna let all the caveats go, and just use this as a reason to smile in a grim world.
[*–Shangri-Las ’65 was released before “I Can Never Go Home Any More” became a big hit. Their label then released a new version of the LP, re-titled after the hit, with “I Can Never Go Home Any More,” one the era’s greatest sides, replacing “The Dum Dum Ditty,” one of the few Shangs’ sides that isn’t great. I should probably add that “this has probably cast a longer shadow than Rubber Soul or Highway 61 Revisited” is something I first scribbled about Shangri-Las ’65 in one of those notebooks all writers keep about thirty years ago, before I knew I Can Never Go Home Any More, the album, existed. I’ve repeated it a few times since, including on this blog. But I ask again–who else joins the Ramones and Madonna at the hip? And what’s more “influential” than that?]
I’m not prepared to bet on it yet, but Donald Trump’s election and subsequent administration may end up being the kind of watershed that will make the future ask how this came to be. A lot of art that’s been made in the last few decades might wind up being viewed through the lens of whether it had its finger on those elements of the American pulse–traditional and modern—that made Trump not so much possible as inevitable.
If that comes to pass, Arliss Howard’s Big Bad Love, based on some short stories by the dissolute Southern writer Larry Brown (Mississippi Division, and I know, “dissolute Southern writer” is a serial redundancy), might be an interesting place to start.
I first heard about the movie when Greil Marcus praised it in one of his RealLife Top Ten columns just after its 2001 release. It stuck in my memory because Marcus wrote of Rosanna Arquette (an ongoing concern of this blog, see HERE, HERE and HERE) that she was “alive on the screen as she hasn’t been since long before the black hole she hit with Desperately Seeking Susan, the passionate woman of The Executioner’s Song and Baby It’s You stepping out of a 20-years-older version of herself.”
Now that I’ve finally seen the movie, I can say that Arquette is certainly more alive than anyone else around her–just as she was in The Wrong Man, Black Rainbow, After Hours, Pulp Fiction (where Tarantino’s choice of Uma Thurman in a role Arquette auditioned for represents his biggest failure of nerve in a career that’s been defined by cowardice) and, come to think of it, Desperately Seeking Susan (where Arquette was touchingly vulnerable and Madonna was saved by the chance to be herself, something no other film, including her various vanity projects, has offered to date).
Except for Madonna being herself, and John Lithgow in The Wrong Man, though, she never had much competition.
Here, the competition is fierce. Howard, Paul LeMat, Debra Winger and especially a revelatory Angie Dickinson make up a spectacular ensemble. If the writing had allowed them to breathe, they might have turned this into a great movie.
As it stands, we have what we have, which is a well-wrought, but finally empty version of an oft-told tale, the standard dissolute Southern writer’s take on his own southernness, dissolution and writerliness, filtered through the travails of trying to find a combination that will impress a Yankee editor. There’s a near-tragedy thrown in. Then a full-blown tragedy. Howard, playing the lead, is especially impressive in his ability to allow a man who is no more damaged after the near and full tragedies than he was before. Less lively maybe, but no more damaged. Dickinson, unfortunately, does not get much chance to show us how the damaged man’s mama responds to his near and real tragedies, which is disappointing because they’re written in her face before they happen.
All of which leaves us with a series of moments, some quite brilliant, all finally devoid of hope or meaning.
It is, however, the kind of world where Donald Trump might become President some day, even if none of these folks (observed? or dreamed up to please the Yankee editor? even the late Larry Brown may not have known). I mean, hell, if this is what they think of us, why not bite their ankle just once and vote for somebody who will pee on their heads too?
I’m not saying I approve, just that I understand.
As for the movie itself, and taking it strictly as a movie and nothing else, it does lead to the question of whether Arquette’s character–the only one who will ever have a lease on anything you would call a life, new or otherwise–is an expression of the writer, the actress or the moment. It’s her meat. Weird stuff has never thrown her (heck, when she worked for Scorcese and Tarantino, she was the only one who wasn’t thrown, not that I didn’t enjoy watching some others give it a go and maybe even convince themselves they had turned the trick, at least after the reviews came in). She gives brief flickers of life to the movie in the same way that her character would give life to those of such dreary, interesting characters as we meet here, or even to their real life counterparts if anybody this dreary was ever really interesting.
Debra Winger, for instance, doesn’t get lost here. We’ve always known that she–Winger, not her character–is capable of nearly anything. But even Debra Winger can’t resolve the contradiction between the kind of grounded realism her character represents and the existential despair a dissolute Southern writer (in this case her character’s husband–based, of course, on the writer himself) must practice twenty-four/seven if he’s to gin up the blend of authenticity and sympathy-for-that-fella-who-knows-the-devil that will create the space for near and real tragedies to occur without costing him his chance at twenty pages in The New Yorker. Arquette–playing a character who is just as recognizable–sails past all that, out into a world of her own, the very one she would have to create if by chance she were ever stuck in the world the movie can’t quite bring itself to convey, let alone the one it invents as a replacement.
So, on a first viewing at lest, I value the movie most for that. It provides another tiny bit of color in a mad mosaic–all her own–which Arquette has built, piece by piece, ever since The Executioner’s Song. One that adds up to a strange, alternative world where it never matters who the President is because no one remembers his name.
She’s Gloria Grahame, fifty years on.
Except it’s the crit-illuminati‘s job to notice such things and how can they when the new President is busy taking a leak on their heads and calling it tears?
I’m glad I got acquainted with this bit of Arquette’s journey. But I have to admit she’s the only reason I would ever subject myself to all those dreary, interesting people twice.