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.
I’m a little late with this, which I meant to post in early August….Life intervened but here goes:
10) The Clash:Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978)
The album between The Clash and London Calling, the monuments upon which their legacy rests.
It’s not really lesser. It’s reputation suffered (though only a bit…you couldn’t say anything too bad about the Clash in 1978!) in the moment and afterward for a myriad of reasons that had nothing to do with the music. It was an early Purity test for the era’s new Lefty, anxious, as in every era, to wipe out the old Lefty. Hiring Blue Oyster Cult’s producer wasn’t exactly a hip move and it turned into a double bust when it didn’t break them on American radio.
But with all that long gone, how do you gainsay, “Safe European Home,” “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad,” “Stay Free?” It rocks and burns and stings and it’s of a piece, everything a master work should be. Confession: I’m sorry I haven’t listened to it more. I’d even say ashamed, except I don’t want to end up in any tribunals.
9) Ringo Starr:Photograph–The Very Best of (2007)
Ringo gets by on his solo records for the same reason he got by on Beatles’ records. You like the guy. And he played with great musicians, who must have liked him too. It might be that “It Don’t Come Easy” is the only great single he made, but several others (“Photograph,” “You’re Sixteen” for starters) come close and a lot of others get by on the sly. The Lucky One? Maybe, but it stands up to any similar length comp from any of his mates…and, not to coin a phrase, goes down easier.
8) Clarence Carter:Snatching It Back (1992)
I keep asking: Is there such a thing as a minor genius?
Not in my book. I’d no more want to be without this than a good Otis Redding package even if I know the difference and it’s hardly negligible.
What Clarence did was carve out a serio-comic niche that belonged to him and no one else. What other deep soul singer had his style defined by a chuckle?
It worked as more than novelty because, when he dug deep on a pure melodrama like “Patches” it was of a piece with his commitment, and when he went on the sly for “Slip Away,” his other signature song, it was right in line with his eye for the main chance (in the song, of course, but career-wise, too). And brother, there’s nothing in this world to compare with his version of “Dark End of the Street,” seemingly covered by every soul and country singer in the world and the most devastating, guilt-ridden tune in all of southern soul. He turned it into pure comedy. Of course he did. Until the very last line, when he took a single line from the real song and turned it into soul’s deepest, darkest statement about not getting out alive.
It’s only then that you understand why some people have to laugh to keep from falling apart.
7) Bruce Springsteen:Born to Run (1975)
My go-to Springsteen. Robert Christgau once wrote that Springsteen was “one of those rare self-conscious primitives who gets away with it”
I’m not going to beat that description though even Bruce only got away with it for so long. This both embodies and transcends all that, however, because the Boss was still young, still hoping to become the new Elvis, which was/is better than being the new Dylan and miles better than being the new Woody Guthrie, the ultra-sincere schtick he’s been riding for about two decades now everywhere except in his legendary concerts. I play this whenever I want to remind myself what the fuss was all about and it still delivers. In spades.
6) Buddy Holly: Memorial Collection (2008)
You could go crazy trying to keep up with all the Buddy Holly collections out there. This is a good one: sixty tracks, nice package, all the essentials. For when you want more than the still peerless 20 Golden Greats and less than the still essential big box that covers everything.
Still brimming with surprise and invention at any length. Except for Elvis and maybe Ray Charles, the other 50’s legends sound like they’re standing still by comparison.
5) Boz Scaggs:Silk Degrees (1976)
It’s easy to forget how big this was in the mid-seventies. It sold five million and yielded four hit singles (of which “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle” became radio staples). Rita Coolidge took the album closer “We’re All Alone” to the top ten.
And I must say it still sounds good. Crafty sure, but not quite slick. An earned success and career definer after his stint in the original Steve Miller Band and his “Loan Me a Dime” blues phase with Duane Allman. Turned out there was a reason people of that caliber wanted to work with him.
4) Jimmy Reed:The Anthology (2011)
Two long discs and you kind of have to be in the mood. Still, it’s amazing how much dexterity Reed got out of what had to be the most limited range any key blues man had either vocally, lyrically or instrumentally. Once you break through to a certain level of acceptance though, it quickly becomes addictive. I found myself wondering what microscopic change he would work next–and laughing out loud when he produced yet another small miracle. “Big Boss Man,” “Bright Lights, Big City,” “Baby What You Want Me to Do.” Imagining a world where his original versions could make the Top 40 is impossible now. If the historical record didn’t exist no one would believe it. Can’t wait until I’m in the mood again.
3) The Jackson 5:Anthology (1976)
The last of the old Motown triples on vinyl…and possibly the best. Considering the competition (Smokey and the Miracles, Supremes, Temptations, Marvin Gaye) that’s saying a mouthful. But this never quits and never even dips. There are no show-tunes or Vegas breaks, no finding their form in the early days (they broke out with “I Want You Back” for Christ’s sake), no late-career sag. Great moments from the always under-appreciated Jermaine and even Jackie in addition to you-know-who, who was still more victim than perpetrator at this point. I’ve always believed you can hear the difference. Worse for him. Better for us.
So it goes.
2) Earl Lewis and the Channels:New York’s Finest (1990)
Unless you’re a doo wop fanatic or at least a serious record collector you probably never heard of them and would therefore likely be shocked at how good they were. Their big one was “The Closer You Are” which does capture their essence, though it only hints at their depths. No period group had better or more arresting arrangements and aren’t arresting arrangements the reason you listen to doo wop?
Besides being transported I mean.
1) The Chi-Lites:Greatest Hits (1972)
I went to sleep to this for a couple of weeks even though it meant sleeping in my bedroom where the record player is. (I don’t mean it put me to sleep–that would be a whole different thing. I rarely sleep in a bed because it gives me a stiff back.)
An essential 70’s album. No record collection should be without it (and no CD collection has come close). At this distance, it’s also one of the saddest records I know. Eugene Record’s vision of assimilation has since vanished from the culture, to be replaced by “diversity” which is always code for running back to the tribes, doubtless in hopes that one’s own tribe will one day triumph.
I wonder if we could still refute the coming collapse if we really wanted to.
And I wonder if we really want to.
Maybe putting them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where they belong, would be a start.
David Winters with Joey Heatherton, sometime in the ’60s! Better then.
Nothing was more important to the ethos of Rock and Roll America than the idea we might dance together. No one was more important to that idea’s broad acceptance than David Winters, who passed away this week at the age of 80.
He choreographed The T.A.M.I. Show, Elvis and Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas (among several Elvis movies), and Nancy Sinatra’s killer TV special Movin’ With Nancy. His dance troupe, the David Winters Dancers, was deep in the iconic DNA of Shindig! and Hullabaloo.
Before and after he did other things as actor, producer, director, memoirist, matchmaker for Alice Cooper and his wife of forty-three years.
Before and after, he managed to win a hall full of awards and force the television academy to invent a new Emmy category for choreographers.
Along the way, he worked with practically everybody and if anyone ever had a bad word to say, I’ve never seen it.
It is not hard to see him as the soul of generosity. It’s almost impossible to convey how liberating his vision was even when a born wallflower like me first encountered it two decades later on scrappy, crappy bootleg videotapes scrounged from the pages of Goldmine magazine at the onset of the Frozen Silence that was specifically designed to squash the freedom his whirling dervish, multi-racial dancers once promised.
We may or may not ever emerge from that Silence, and God only knows what will replace it if we do.
But we’ll never fly closer to the sun than when his way was the way.
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:
“The thing that always amazed me about Sandy, was that she thought she actually could appeal to the masses. Of course she couldn’t….If you’re writing songs that people can shoot themselves to, you know you’re not going to be in the charts.”
(Linda Thompson, wife of Sandy Denny’s greatest band-mate Richard Thompson–quoted in The Guardian, May 5, 2005)
There have been times and places where writing songs “people could shoot themselves to” has been something that could get you “in the charts” in a heartbeat.
Ask Kurt Cobain. Ask Amy Winehouse.
Ask Billie Holiday (whose “God Bless the Child,” which, yes, she wrote, didn’t go in the charts but did inspire countless covers and suicides).
Maybe Sandy Denny was just out of her time.
Else too perfectly of her time.
If she was ever too perfectly in tune with times no sane person would have wanted to be in tune with, it was 1969, when, after taking the band by storm at her audition, she released three mind-bending albums with Fairport Convention, thus inventing an English version of folk rock which had no precedents and–once Sandy Denny left the planet in such short order–could have no heirs.
By her third album with Fairport, Liege & Lief, she had taken command.
Being the sort of whirlwind spirit you’d expect on the evidence of Linda Thompson’s quote, the music she made in ’69 (the year she almost made it in the charts) and every picture she ever took, she then moved on: to another band; to a solo career; to a duet with Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant on his band’s most monumental album that was a match for any vocal in the history of sound.
And thence to a solo career and a downward spiral into alcoholism, depression, self-destruction, coma and death.
All within eight years.
Listening to her in ’69, when it must have been possible–for her or anyone–to think no one who sang with that much death in her voice could possibly fail to become an era-defining star while so much death was in the air, one is compelled to wonder whether her future, or ours, could have been different.
1969 was not just any year historically, nor was it just any year vocally.
It was the year of Elvis Presley’s Memphis sessions, Dusty Springfield’s Memphis sessions (which were then re-created in New York), Jerry Butler’s Iceman sessions, Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul, Merle Haggard’s usual three fine albums, Marvin Gaye’s “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby”–great enough to bridge “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and What’s Going On–and that’s just a sampling of the big names).
For life-defining vocals, no year ran deeper.
And Sandy Denny might have had the greatest year of all.
In any year, her combination of power and delicacy was unique. The number of vocalists who could go toe-to-toe with Robert Plant at full tilt is limited. Those who could then deploy a wistful soprano to dive as far inside a song as Billie Holiday make up a list of one.
It is hard to be one of anything.
It must have been something more than hard (and I almost wrote “worse” when I might have meant “better”–she’ll do that to you) to carry the spirit of Stonehenge single-handed into the Age of Aquarius.
Perhaps that’s why, as the year goes on–record by record–she sounds more desperate and more determined.
Bad news, bad news, come to me where I sleep she sings on the year’s midpoint second album (Unhalfbricking, which also contained her rollicking French version, definitive in any language and her one ride up the charts, of “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”). The lines are Bob Dylan’s. The moment she sings them, you know they’ll never again belong to him or anyone else.
Except maybe the other version of Sandy Denny, who laid down another album or two’s worth of stellar work on the BBC in the same year she made What We Did On Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking, and Liege & Lief :
To listen to it all at once is to be swamped by the notion that sex and desire-the things rock and roll had seemed designed to liberate–have been turned into a series of dungeons under a world of prisons.
If that sounds like a fun place to be then the Sandy Denny of Liege &Lief, in particular, will be the love of your life and–except for maybe the Sandy Denny of other albums here and there–all substitutes will seem silly by comparison.
Even I, with my interest in singers who might have made a deal with the Devil, (because, darn it, deals with the Devil are inherently interesting even if they’re also inherently speculative), have to acknowledge something deeper than speculation is at work in Denny’s voice. Like God, Satan moves in mysterious ways…only the True Believers, the Fundamentalist and the Atheist, forever joined at the hip, manage to convince themselves of either his obviousness or his absence.
And, spectacular as her range was, it was only half the story. Calling her a hard soprano only goes part-way to explaining how she relentlessly, to the point of exhaustion, reached places unavailable to other sopranos. The rest is mystery.
Her first two Fairport albums drew plenty of comparisons to the Band, which was odd since the Band created musical excitement by trading rough-hewn voices, fitted into each other by thousands of nights on the road, while Denny’s band seemed built to contain her one minute and elevate her the next.
She and her mates were barely together a year-and-a-half and spent enough of that time in the studio to record three albums, the last in the throes of an accident that killed drummer Martin Lamble and Thompson’s girlfriend, Jeannie Franklyn–and I wonder if anyone thought Death wasn’t going to follow Sandy Denny around?
Not these people surely….
That’s where the Fairport/Denny collaboration started. In the space of two albums it went everywhere. Well, everywhere Death went anyway. In the beginning, Iain Matthews could lay down what I’ll swear to this day is a vocal nobody could snatch from under him–and no matter how many times I’ve heard it, I never believe even powerhouse Sandy Denny could take it away until the very moment, at the top of the third line, when she does….by going quieter….Or that anyone could grab it back after handing it back the first time….until, with a single powerhouse interpolation in the fade, she does.
All that plus her standard, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” (which she’d already recorded with Strawbs in ’67, and seen become a hit for Judy Collins, who had every bit of Denny’s range and none of her mystery–none of her relationship with the Middle Ages, or her certainty, circa 1969, that the future was just one more past waiting to be reborn), and none of it really preps you for where she took the band, the world and herself on Liege & Lief.
Lief, released in December, Fairport’s third album in twelve months, is essentially a Denny solo record (albeit with strong support), and here at last is what she had probably had in mind all along–what Linda Thompson meant when she gave the quote above, years after Denny’s death. It’s an album filled with murder and other morbid sorts of ballads and a vocal approach so devoid of pop sheen it makes Music from Big Pink sound like The Archies Dig Christmas!
It’s not an easy listen, either aesthetically or emotionally. Getting it, even getting at it, requires a spiritual and physical commitment something akin to what the singer is putting in from the other side.
Death and Sex in other words.
You up for that?
If you are–and I was, once–be prepared to encounter not merely a bleak vision but an intricately defined twilight world, full of sharp detail one moment and movement in the shadows that never moves from the corner of your mind’s eye the next, where everyone’s trapped behind castle walls and the only viable sex is an endless cycle of rape and childbirth and revenge where and you will love your child is a curse.
You didn’t forget she had a deal with the Devil did you?
It turned out the Sandy Denny who chased stardom through three bands in four years and laid down tracks as scarifying as this along the way…
was only playing around.
Her voice had always been poised between acceptance and revenge.
I’ll kill myself…but only if I convince myself I can’t kill you instead.
There was always more than a hint of real terror in the concept and it’s heightened on Liege & Lief, where”Tam Lin” and “Matty Groves” go on forever…until you get them, after which you’re mostly just afraid for them to end.
This is not the silliness of something like The Handmaid’s Tale….a fantasy about a future world ruled by Fundamentalist Christians who have developed ideas about women and fertility that are remarkably similar to those of certain contemporary jihadis Margaret Atwood or the honchos at Hulu dare not call out for fear of discovering who the really dangerous people are. No, it’s dread that predates our modern ideas of merely having fantasies spoiled and calling it persecution.
At least that was how I heard it the last time I listened…maybe the first time I truly got it.
I could imagine the spell–that is the right word–breaking.
I could wake up tomorrow and find it gone. I could imagine never listening to Liege & Lief again (though, oddly, not “Nottamun Town.”) I could imagine being relieved if that were the case.
But I know I’d be a fool if I tricked myself into thinking I had reached a better understanding or gotten to the bottom of the dungeon.
What Sandy Denny produced in 1969–the way she used that hard soprano’s most startling and pitiless elements to invent a world as new as tomorrow’s gloomy sunrise and discover one as old as a cave painting–was a body of work any artist worthy of the name would kill for if only it could be got by bending to man’s baser nature.
Alas, 1969 was the peak.
Perhaps there was nowhere to go but down.
In any case, down she went.
There was another year, another band (Fotheringay). Then she rode high with Led Zeppelin in their finest hour (as their only guest vocalist and you can hear why even they might have been a little shy of taking it any further). She partied hard with the rowdiest English rock and rollers, determined to drink every one of them under the table. She made four solo albums.
There was a tempestuous marriage and a child who was soon taken from her for the child’s own good.
Then she took to making dramatic falls, some intentional, some not. Some down stairways, one of which finally damaged her brain.
Either that or the booze finally put her in a coma, where, in 1978, six weeks before I graduated high school, blissfully and painfully unaware of her existence, she died of old age at 31, still waiting, in some sense, to be discovered by the people who wanted to shoot themselves.
One more victim of the 60s. then.
I expect she’ll still be here–or there–when we’re all back where we belong.
By major act (and as prelude to a piece on Motown’s real importance in the sixties–coming….some day!).
Since the object is to honor the records, I used mostly studio recordings or lip synchs. The major exception is Smokey solo on “Sweet Harmony.” You know, if you only click one, yaddah, yaddah. I included the important acts who passed through Motown on their way to bigger, better things, because, well, they made great records on Motown, too. I stopped with acts who were at least signed in the 70s.
And I added my favorite one shot at the bottom–because God knows there were plenty of those!
The Marvelettes “Playboy” (1962)
The Miracles “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage” (1967)
Mary Wells “The One Who Really Loves You”(1962)
Marvin Gaye “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” (1969)
Martha and the Vandellas “Honey Chile” (1967)
The Supremes “Reflections” (1967)
The Temptations “Don’t Look Back” (1965)
The Four Tops “Standing in the Shadows of Love” (1966)
Stevie Wonder:”I Believe (When I Fall in Love With You It Will Be Forever)” (1972)
Gladys Knight & the Pips “It Should Have Been Me” (1968)
The Isley Brothers “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)” (1966)
Jr. Walker & the All Stars: “Way Back Home” (1971)
Marvin and Tammi “If This World Were Mine” (1967)
Spinners “We’ll Have it Made” (1971)
The Jackson 5 “ABC” (1970)
Diana Ross (solo) “Upside Down” (1980)
Smokey Robinson (solo) “Sweet Harmony” (1973)
Jackson 5 (solo) Jermaine: “That’s How Love Goes” (1972)
The Commodores “Sail On” (1979)
Rick James “Superfreak (Part 1)” (1981)
Lionel Richie (solo) “Deep River Woman” w/Alabama (1986)
And, my favorite one shot (or, if you like, one big shot), in a close run over Brenda Holloway’s “Every Little Bit Hurts” and R. Dean Taylor’s “Indiana Wants Me” (which I’m guessing not a lot of people remember was a Motown record):
Jimmy Ruffin “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” (1966)
[NOTE: This is an interview that Mary Weiss gave to Norton Records’ Billy Miller and Miriam Linna in 2007 upon their release of Weiss’s first music in forty years. Weiss has not made any records since and the interview disappeared from Norton’s website a couple of years ago, apparently the victim of some serious weather damage to their offices. I’ve noticed that the links I once provided to that interview still draw a fair amount of interest and I’ve tried to contact Norton several times to see if they are ever planning to repost the interview. As I’ve not heard from them, I assume they are either not planning to do so or are seriously backlogged. I’m reposting the interview here because, even sans the cool graphics and trove of wonderful photos (a few of which I tracked down for some relevant passages here), it’s one of the most important interviews ever given by a rock and roll singer. If you’ve followed along on this site for a while, you know how I feel about the Shangri-Las, but, more to the point, you know how I feel about the often ridiculous narratives that were imposed on them–often by the usual well-intentioned sorts paving the usual roads to hell–during Mary’s forty years of silence. By extension, many of those same false narratives were imposed on the entire Girl Group era (another ongoing concern of this blog), and there has never been more de-bunking assembled in one place than this wide-ranging interview. If Norton re-posts this in the future I will re-link to it. If they request me to take this down, I will do so. In the meantime, I’ll post it here in the interests of historical preservation. It needs to be available somewhere. (And, of course, I encourage everyone to consider buying Norton’s products, especially Weiss’s still valuable CD, Dangerous Game, which now seems likely to be the last we will hear from her on record.)]
(MW is Mary Weiss, BM is Billy Miller, ML is Miriam Linna…I’ve retained the original’s sometimes idiosyncratic punctuation, etc.)
MW: Do you want to start with the Shangri stuff?
ML: Let’s start at the very beginning. Where were you born?
MW: Jamaica, Queens, New York. Jamaica hospital.
BM: Wow, me too. Same hospital!
ML: How about some family background?
MW: I grew up in Queens, Cambria Heights. My father died when I was six weeks old. I’m the youngest of three kids. My brother George was eight years older than me. He passed away in 1996. And my sister Liz was in the Shangri-Las with me.
ML: What drew you to the music?
MW: I became interested in music at about four or five years old. When I was a kid, I loved the Ink Spots and then with rock n’ roll, I loved the Everly Brothers and Neil Sedaka. My brother was much older, so I listened to all of the records he had. He was an Elvis freak. There were guys that sang on the street corner in my neighborhood. I would listen to them and I’d sing with them sometimes.
ML: Do you remember when you started singing.
MW: I always sang, as far back as I can remember. I sang in the church choir. I was in every shcool play and sang in all of them.
ML: Did you go to rock n’ roll shows?
MW: The only rock n’ roll show I attended was in grammar school. Our class wen to Freedomland and the Everly Brothers played. They did so much for everybody regarding harmony. By the time I was fifteen, I was always in the studio, so I didn’t get to go to shows at that time. I really didn’t go to concerts until much later.
ML: What were the local hangouts in your neighborhood for teenagers?
MW: It was a place called Ed’s. We all hung out there. There were all these groups of kids–Ed’s group, Bill’s group, Reno’s group, the 225th Street group and we all meet there, four or five groups of neighborhood kids.
ML: Who were you listening to?
MW: We’d listen to Babalu and Cousin Brucie on WABC. When I was a teenager, I bought all my records at Korvettes. They had the best record department and they were cheap.
BM: Great store! They’d print their own charts every week.
ML: How did you meet the Ganser sisters?
MW: I met the twins in grammar school although they went to public school and I went to Catholic school–so much for organized religiou! They lived a few blocks away. We hung out at their house and began singing together there and on the p layground. We all had an interest in music and our voiced blended well. At that time, we were really pursuing our own sond. We all went to Andrew Jackson High School for a while.
ML: Did you call yourselves the Shangri-Las right from the start?
MW: You know we didn’t have a name initially. We were going to make a record and we said “We better get a name–fast!” We were driving on Long Island and saw a restaurant called the Shangri-La. That’s where we got the name.
BM: Were you the lead singer from the start?
MW: Actually, my sister Liz was at first. On the first demo, on “Wishing Well,” that’s Liz. She actually sang both sides (“Hate To Say I Told You So”). She also sang “Shout.” “Wishing Well” was actually our demo and they played around with it and released it.
BM: Spokane Records. That was Artie Ripp, right?
MW: Right. Kama Sutra Productions. That was very short lived.
BM: I love that first record you made, “Simon Says” with the Lonnie Mack type guitar and the Bo Diddley beat.
MW: Liz was the lead singer on that one, too.
BM: You were singing at hops and dances, who was booking you when you started?
MW: Before we went to Red Bird, we had a manager names Tony Michaels.
BM: Now you met George “Shadow” Morton through Bob Lewis, Babalu from WABC.
MW: Right. Bob Lewis. That’s where I met George, at Bob’s apartment. Tony Michaels took us over there so he could hear us sing and get his opinion. George was there, I don’t know why he was there, but that’s how we met him. True story.
ML: In a nutshell, can you describe Shadow for us?
MW: George is one of the most colorful, unique people I’ve ever met in my life. Extremely talented. He used to be very difficult to get into a room at a scheduled time, but a brilliant man.
BM: An amazing producer.
MW: I was with George at some arena show when he met Phil Spector.
BM: Wow! What was that like?
MW: Oil and water! That’s all I can say. I was not happy to be there.
BM: There’s a 45 by a group called the Beatle-Ettes produced by a George Morton…
MW: I know what you’re going to ask and that’s not the Shangri-Las. They say a group called the Bon Bons is the Shangri-Las. That thing is everywhere. I see it all the time and go “Who the hell are they?”
BM: It doesn’t make any sense because you and Shadow pretty much started together.
MW: Right. You got me! I have no idea where people get this stuff.
BM: Did Shadow make any plans for you right away?
MW: No, not until we did the demo for “Remember.” Billy Joel played piano on it. George said he had a phone conversation with Billy years later and Billy said, “You owe me $67. You never paid me scale!”
BM: Was the demo really over seven minutes long like legend has it?
MW: I don’t think it was quite that long, it’s been exaggerated over the years, but it was longer than the actual record. At the time, it was unheard of to extend a record to more than a few minutes. That seemed abnormal to me.
BM: Still, it seems that it would be weird for Shadow to go that far out on a limb his first time out, with so much at stake.
MW: It would.
BM: So the whole reason for making the demo was that George had told Jeff Barry at Red Bird that he was a songwriter even though he’d never written anything before. In your words what transpired to bring all of this about? What exactly was the story?
MW: As far as “Remember (Walkin in the Sand)” goes, I think you should ask George Morton. My involvement with the song was in the studio.
ML: It’s a complex song.
MW: Initially it was done instrumentally and kind of evolved. I like that song a lot.
BM: And you did that at Mirasound in Manhattan?
MW: We did most of them there. We did use Ultra-Sonic sometimes. We did most of our demos there.
BM: My Boy Scout troop went to Ultra-Sonic in 1965 to see a real recording studio. I was really into it until the engineer goes, “You boys should have been here last night. The Shangri-Las were here.” That’s really not the kind of thing to tell a room full of teenage boys if you want them to keep paying attention.
MW: That wasn’t nice. It could have been fun!
BM: Now you tell me! The Shangri-Las first hit at the start of the British Invasion. That’s a mighty tough uphill battle.
MW: Absolutely. Look at the Beach Boys.
ML: When “Remember” hit, you started playing right away….
MW: Right away, yes. The Brooklyn Fox Theatre. I was traveling all the time. When I wasn’t doing that I was in the studio. When I wasn’t doing that I was rehearsing.
ML: Were you still in high school.
MW: I missed out on doing any real high school stuff. I went to professional school where you could leave if you had to tour. It was necessary. When you do television shows when you’re a kid, they put a tutor backstage in the corner with a little book. It’s the law. Kinda strange. Paul Jabara was my closest friend there. He wrote “Last Dance” for Donna Summer. Paul had the greatest sense of humor. I wish he was still around. I miss him to this day. I’d tag along to auditions with him. Once he stood on stage, pulled out his sheet music for the piano player–about ten feet long–and broke into “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” I sat in the back of theatre and was laughing so hard I was crying.
ML: When the Shangri-Las first became successful, did neighborhood friends act differently towards you?
MW: It’s a catch-22. They act differently towards you and meanwhile, you’re still hitting that handball and hanging out, but you don’t fit in anymore. It’s them that’s changed, not you. At the time, you think, “Oh, my God!”
ML: Were the twins like you? Was there a shared Shangri-Las persona?
MW: Mary Ann and Margie were more assertive, actually, as far as their public persona. Both of them were much gruffer than me. They both had great senses of humor. They were pranksters.
BM: What’d they do?
MW: Mostly stupid stuff. Margie added an apostrophe and an ‘s’ to Marvin Gaye’s door and took the ‘s’ off his last name so his door read “Marvin’s Gaye”.
ML: Did the twins have similar personalities?
MW: They were very similar personality-wise. Margie was more aggressive than Mary Ann. When my sister wasn’t in the group and it was just me and the twins, it was like “Hello? What do you mean ‘majority rules’?!” It was very devastating for Margie when Mary Ann died.
BM: Your sister didn’t tour at first, but she still sang on all the records, right?
MW: Yes, the four of us were on the records. Liz is an extremely talented singer. We’ve been through so much together. Liz looked like Bardot when she was young. She still lives near me now and has been happily married for 25 years.
ML: You went straight from playing neighborhood hops to big stages and national TV. Were you terrified?
MW: It didn’t faze me much. Maybe it should have (laughs).
BM: Those Murray the K shows at the Brooklyn Fox must have been brutal.
MW: They were real brutal. From early morning until late at night. Seven sets, back to back. You have a record on the charts–there you are! I did the Cow Palace and I don’t know how many big arenas. Right after “Remember” came out, James Brown hired us to do a Coliseum show in Texas. They had signs put up COLORED GIRLS’ and WHITE GIRLS’ bathrooms and I got in a huge fight with a cop because I used the black women’s bathroom and he drew his gun on me. I was absolutely amazed. This is backstage in a Coliseum and the white bathroom is on the entire other side of the floor. I really had to go and then get onstage!
BM: Is that where the song “What’s a Girl Supposed to Do” got its inspiration.
MW: (laughs) I’ve never seen anything like that. What surprised me more was the other women in the bathroom looking at me with their mouths open. Earlier, when we did the afternoon sound check, James Brown’s mouth fell open! He turned around and looked at me–here’s this little blonde girl. He thought we were black. All the other performers were black and we were very nervous because we didn’t know how the audience was going to respond. It turned out to be a great show!
BM: That’s wild.
MW: We worked with James a few time. I was at his house once. He lived in St. Albans, the next town over from Cambria Heights. He had “JB” on the gate. We were just BS’ing there, basically. I liked him.
BM: There’s a story of you putting Murray the K’s motorcycle on the roof of the Fox.
MW: Come on, Murray didn’t even have a motorcycle.
BM: But you did hit him in the face with a pie onstage at the Fox.
MW: That was long overdue! (laughs) One fun thing we’d do at the Fox, was if there was a really good group onstage, we’d grab a microphone behind the back curtain and there’s be four part harmony going on like a chorus. It was wonderful!
BM: You played a bunch with the Zombies.
MW: They were great guys. Still are. I just saw them play at B.B. King’s. They’re still great! I wish them the best in everything they do.
BM: What other groups did you pal around with?
MW: I didn’t get to pal around with anybody. We were so busy. It was very different then. Now these singers say how rough they have it. They don’t have a clue. Ride in a bus every night. Sleep every other night. See how that feels. People don’t realize how hard it was back then. There were no monitors at the time. Sometimes you were screaming just to hear yourself singing. The Dick Clark Caravans, they were grueling shows. Every other night you’d sleep in a hotel. Sleep on the bus, then you’d have to get up and look perky. It’s exhausting. But, there was one great thing at the end of the Dick Clark tours, because he’d have Caravans going all over the country and we’d all mee in one place and they’d have like a Battle of the Bands type thing with all the stars. Those were cool shows. You’d meet up in one arena, do one big show and then we’d all go home.
BM: Sometimes there were four of you and at various times, Liz, Margie and Mary Ann were off the road…
MW: And I was the one constant member. That was it. There’s lots of BS written about our group. I’ve seen it written that we missed concerts, that the other girls did some shows without me. That’s simply not true. I never missed a single show. I couldn’t take a break. Everyone got exhausted and could take time off. Touring was exhausting. Most of the times when I woke up, I didn’t know what state I was in. Too many buses, too many flights. Touring was a blur.
BM: Red Bird was owned by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and George Goldner. What were your impressions of them.
MW: We were crazy about George Goldner. In fact, at the end of our first year on Red Bird, we bought George a huge television set, at that time, they didn’t have them that big everywhere. We gave it to him with a big gold plaque on the front as a thank you present. It said, “George Goldner, Thank You, The Shangri-Las”. It was a gesture from us. I don’t think he got enough credit for anything at Red Bird. He was a kid who never grew up. Riding around in a Cadillac with the top down. He was like a very large child. I loved him.
BM: And Leiber and Stoller?
MW: Leiber and Stoller are wonderful people. They brought a tremendous amount of enthusiasm to all their artists. I have a lot of respect for them both, but they didn’t work with us directly. They worked on songs with George Morton, then he worked with us.
BM: “Leader of the Pack” was the second Red Bird record and the biggest one. There really wasn’t a motorcycle in the studio on the session, was there?
MW: I’ve heard that, too.
BM: Yeah, because you hear it roaring away. Where did it go?
MW: Studio B. (laughs)
BM: That guy on the album cover, was he anybody special?
MW: Absolutely not! And he sure didn’t look like any biker I knew!
ML: On the Red Bird recordings, they double-tracked your voice sometimes….
MW: Yes, on a few.
BM: That was quite a team that you had in the studio at Red Bird – (producer) Shadow Morton, (engineer) Brooks Arthur and (arranger) Artie Butler.
MW: Absolutely! I know. You can’t ever give them enough credit. The Shangri-Las was one of Brooksie’s first things. That’s why we’re friends to this day. Brooks Arthur is extremely talented in so many areas. Artie Butler is one of the most brilliant arrangers I’ver ever heard. I love both those guys.
BM: Those sessions were pretty monumental. Would you come in and sing or would you get more involved in the whole process?
MW: Oh, I always stayed there. I stayed for every mixing session.
ML: Even before you had to sing your parts?
MW: Right. I was there for every step.
BM: Would they listen to your input?
MW: Oh, sure.
BM: How much free rein did the group have on vocal arrangements? On something like say, “The Train Fom Kansas City,” that introduction is extraordinary.
MW: OK, on “The Train From Kansas City,” I worked hard with Jeff (Barry) on that. You can hear the flavor to it.
BM: Unmistakably the Shangri-Las.
MW: Our group, I mean even for that time period, the harmonies were unique. The blending of the voices was unique.
BM: Like “Out in the Streets”– flawless record. That’s my absolute favorite Shangri-Las record.
MW: That’s my favorite, too.
BM: Just curious, what would be your five favorite Shangri-Las records?
MW: “Out in the Streets,” “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” “I Can Never Go Home Anymore,” “Past, Present and Future” and “The Train From Kansas City.” I also like the Mercury record “I’ll Never Learn.”
BM: “Out in the Streets” and “Give Us Your Blessings,” you look in the national charts, and they weren’t real huge smash hits, but here in New York, those records were monsters. You heard them everywhere.
MW: Yes, they were biggest here. Definitely.
BM: Did you know that “Out in the Streets” was the last song played on WINS before they switched from rock ‘n’ roll to all news?
MW: Yes, I did. I thought that was quite touching. Very neat. There were a lot of great Djs then. They seemed to be more involved than nowadays where it’s all programmed.
BM: I dig “Heaven Only Knows” a lot.
MW: Really? Why’s that?
BM: I guess when I boutht “Give Us Your Blessings” as a kid and I got a great B-side, it was like getting an extra record.
MW: Oh, I hated it when the B-sides on records stunk. We always wanted both sides to be cool.
BM: Your flips were all killers–“Heaven Only Knows,” “The Train From Kansas City,” “Dressed in Black”…
ML: That deliberate spoken part….
MW: I always thought “Past, Present and Future” was a unique sounding record. And everybody that’s written about it said it was about rape. That was news to me! At the time, you need to remember, people are forgetting about the teenage angst. When somebody breaks your heart, you don’t want anyone near you. Things are very different now. Kids grow up younger and younger.
ML: Right. In the Shangri-Las, you had young voices singing about pretty heavy emotional stuff. It was like “Yeah, that’s how I feel.” You don’t have to relate to adult themes.
MW: When you’re a kid, who hasn’t felt like that? When somebody blows you off or hurts you, it’s very traumatic.
ML: Especially having a girl’s voice saying it. Other girls can relate, like “I have real feelings.”
MW: I thought we all felt like that.
BM: And your approach is so powerful. It sounds like you’re crying by the end of “I Can Never Go Home Anymore.”
MW: I was crying. That whole sentiment…it’s kinda funny because at the time I really didn’t talk to my mother at all.
BM: Your vocal delivery on “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” and “Past, Present and Future” was very personal, very intimate.
MW: The studio is a very private place. I always thought it should be. Actuall, at one Shangri-Las session, Mary Travers from Peter, Paul and Mary showed up. She was pregnant at the time. I was extremely impressed that she came. I would have been very nervous if I had known in advance that she was going to be there. She’s a wonderful talent and a great person.
BM: Who’s that singing the lead vocal on “I’m Blue.”
MW: Mary Ann.
BM: What do you remember about “Right Now and Not Later?”
MW: Not a whole hell of a lot! (laughs)
BM: Were there any songs that the Shangri-Las recorded for Red Bird that never got released?
ML: You must have been excited when your first album came out.
MW: All this stuff is exciting. Don’t get me wrong if you’re not getting that impression. It’s wonderful stuff when you open BILLBOARD and you’ve got two pages. “There it is! All right!!”
ML: Were the Red Bird sessions specifically for singles or did you try a few things and saw what clicked?
MW: One song most of the time, especially the larger sessions like “Remember” or “I Can Never Go Home Anymore.” The strings on that? I love them. Those were huge sessions with the room full of musicians.
BM: When rock videos started appearing, I always thought they could never capture what the Shangri-Las and Shadow Morton put into my imagination. Since I first heard “Remember,” I always pictured it all taking place at Long Beach on Long Island, for some reason.
MW: I did, too. Later, I pictured it in Florida. When we went to England we found, the British spent more time setting up everything as far as television goes. They’re meticulous. I walk in the studio and the entire soundstage was filled with sand and a giant grandfather clock for one song. I just could not believe it. It was beautiful. Dusty was on that show.
BM: Dusty Springfield?
MW: Yes, Dusty is an absolutely amazing talent. The Shangri-Las were in London doing Top of the Pops and Ready! Steady! Go! Dusty was having a very large party in her flat. It started out all civilized, nice French doors and antique desks, but she liked to start food fights. And she started one and I’m hiding under this lovely French desk with her manager and fish and food are flying by! They were actually throwing pies later in the night. So Mary Annd goes to put her boots on and they were filled with fish! Dusty was a kinky girl, but a true talent. But, Mary Ann got even with Dusty. She waited and waited and the next time we were with Dusty at the Brooklyn Fox, Mary Ann put fish in Dusty’s shoes. And that’s called….payback! (laughs)
MW: Dusty also flung crockery at the Fox. There was this place where she bought a ton of cheap crockery. We learned the fine art of throwing plates there. Stand at one end of the corridor and fling it with all your might. It makes a loud crash and gets rid of the stress. Parts of Dusty were very self-destructive, but the other side of her was so much fun. I’ll always think of her fondly, mo matter what anybody writes about her. The world will remember her talent. I’ll always remember her laughter, the fine art of crockery throwing….and her talent!
ML: Your records were pretty notorious right from the start.
MW: Look at “Leader.” It was banned in Britain. What was there to ban?
ML: In England there was a lot of trouble between the Mods and the Rockers. That’s why “Leader of the Pack” was probably banned.
MW: I was so proud. I was a Rocker!
MW: I got off the plane dressed in black leather. They definitely knew where I stood. (laughs)
ML: And what did you make of the Mods?
MW: The Mods were just not home. To each his own. Their lifestyle was…(laughs)…I was never into fashion.
ML: Which is wild because you became such a fashion icon.
MW: I could never picture myself sitting at a runway show, could you?
ML: No, never. But that’s the great thing. You subconsiously started a whole look.
MW: Who cares?
BM: I feel like I’m a guest on The View…
ML: But you only went to England, no other countries?
MW: Pretty much. There were a million things booked. I remember sitting in Los Angeles with these Japanese people and they were giving me scripts and things and making plans for us to go there.
ML: But you never did.
MW: Never did. It should have happened but there was just no time.
ML: Did you follow the charts?
MW: The charts thing is a strange position to be in. Once you have a smash hit, the record company is like, “OK, here’s the next one. I feel sorry for artists today. They’re here and gone and hey bring on th next one. I just saw Chrissie Hynde talking about today’s artists and what they face. Nobody gets behind them or develops them anymore. Bring on the next midriff section…
BM: Do you see the Shangri-Las in any act today?
MW: Maybe like the Donnas. I can see our attitude.
ML: Who were your favorites during the Shangri-Las years?
MW: I loved Dusty. The Jefferson Airplane, that might have been a little later, but I remember I first heard them on the way to the Fox Theatre. I saw Jimi Hendrix in the Village before he was famous. My jaw dropped. You know what was a great time? I went to a big party at Andy Warhol’s one day. It was fascinating. He had a huge loft with a deck and umbrellas and the bathroom had a golden throne. Very cool. Ultra Violet was there. Lots of cool people.
BM: There was a Shangri-Las Day at the New York World’s Fair.
MW: How did you know that?
BM: Because I remember being pissed that I didn’t get to go. We were always at the Word’s Fair.
MW: Me, too. I thought it was cool. They had a Monorail with our name on it and we performed.
BM: Mary, even being a star by then, that had to be a big thrill–hometown girls make good….
MW: Oh sure. We loved it. We all did.
BM: The Shangri-Las played at the New York Paramount with the Beatles. Did you meet them?
MW: No, they were on one floor and everybody else was on another. At the Paramount, Margie saved out the window high up so that everyone thought it was the Beatles waving. The crowd went nuts!
BM: When you gals….
MW: You gals? At least you didn’t say Girl Groups.
BM: Sorry Mary. No, I know better than to mention Girl Groups.
MW: Oh, kill me now! Thank you. How do you take an entire sex and dump them into one category? Girl Groups, I mean, please! What if we all had penises?
BM: Uh, that would have seriously affected the crush I had on you as a kid.
ML: People tend to categorize….
MW: Count me out. If Girl Groups were products, what were Boy Groups? (Looking at photo) Ow! You know who did this to my hair? Monti Rock III.
ML: How did Monti Rock end up doing your hair?
MW: He did our hair on that album cover nobody likes on Mercury, where we look Mod. Monti, wherever you are, what were you thinking?
ML: But you look so sultry there, like Veronica Lake.
MW: I look stupid. I didn’t like it at all.
ML: And those boots…
MW: Are you kidding? I’ll tell you what boots I really liked. They buttoned up and they were kid leather. There were like old fashioned 1890’s boots with cool heels. I got those at Saks.
ML: Boots became your signature.
MW: Yes, that’s why I like those outfits on the LEADER album. That was my thing.
ML: Whose suggestion was that?
MW: Nobody’s. That was us. It’s funny because it created such a hoopla, like we were tough, whatever and all it is, is a white shirt, a vest and a pair of black pants.
ML: But the black slacks, slacks at all, you really did something different there. It really defined the Shangri-Las.
MW: Jeans don’t fit on everyone.
BM: Yeah, when you’d see the Supremes on Ed Sullivan, hey’d have evening gowns on, old people’s clothes.
MW: I used to get my slacks on Eighth Street in the Village in a Men’s Store. People would look at me like I was gay because I like low rise pants. I don’t get it, quite frankly.
ML: These outfits were something else. (holds up I CAN NEVER GO HOME ANYMORE album)
MW: Yes, that’s what everyone was wearing ten years later, like Spandex.
ML: Now you couldn’t have bought those in a store. You had to have those made.
ML: Who designed them?
MW: We did. We just sat and did them ourselves.
ML: You don’t still have your boots, do you?
MW: Do you still have your boots from 1965?
BM: She might….
ML: The Shangri-Las got a lot of magazine coverage, too.
MW: We did a lot of interviews back then. “What do you do in your spare time?” What spare time?
BM: I have a record where the Shangri-Las are being interviewed and you get asked things like, “Do guys on the street really give you a great big kiss?”
MW: (laughs) “Ew, get away from me!”
BM: You hear so many stories about how bad you were….
MW: WHAT ABOUT IT!? (laughs)
ML: There’s stories about you tying up a guy and kidnapping him.
MW: You know, I don’t remember that, but if I did, he deserved it!
BM: And that you had guns….
MW: I did purchase a gun once, a little Derringer. I bought a gun after somebody tried to break into my hotel room. There were these glass panels on the side of the door and all of a sudden I see this arm coming through. Not only was I scared to death, but there were large amounts of money in the room. You’re on the road with no protection. But, I was a little kid. I didn’t know. Back then, you could walk in anywhere and buy a gun. But the FBI came to my mother’s house and said, “Will you please tell your daughter she’ll be arrested if she gets off the plane with her gun?” We just finished a tour in Florida and I turned it in at the police station down there.
BM: Did they get a chaperone for the group at any point?
MW: If you can call an eighteen-year-old a proper chaperone. Maybe nineteen, but that’s as grown up as it got. We had a road manager, Fat Frankie, for a while, then he managed NRBQ following that. That wasn’t much supervision. One of our other road managers was a black belt in karate. Once, there was a car full of drunken guys weaving all over a bridge, waving beer bottles and stuff and it was getting very dangerous. They kept swerving into our car and it was very scary. I was so petrified, my heart was in my throat. It was as if they thought they had the right to do this. They could have killed us all. Louis stopped the car and took them all on. They were flying everywhere, all over the bridge. You had no choice in the matter. It was a dark road with nowhere to go, there were no cell phones then. I’m glad he was there. I could see the headlines now, JIMMY KILLS MARY ON BRIDGE. It was much different than now. It’s very hard to explain. Nothing was organized. It was ‘Here’a list of shows, get on the road.” I was only fifteen.
ML: Now what about the night club scene?
MW: (whispers) I shouldn’t have even been in there. I was fifteen. We’d go in them and hang out, but we were more geared to the teen clubs. But we played the Whiskey A Go Go.
ML: Did the Shangri-Las work with one booking agency?
MW: Different ones. William Morris and others. But, you’d set limitations on them or they’d beat you to death, you’d never be off. You’d have to rehearse and record and do television, too.
BM: The Shangri-Las made so many TV appearances like Shindig and Hullabaloo. Here in New York, I never missed the Clay Cole Show. You seemed to be on it all the time…
MW: All the time. We sure were.
BM: It was almost like, time for Clay Cole, let’s see what’s new by the Shangri-Las.
MW: Clay had us on a lot. That was great! I’d walk in the studio, I knew all the guards by name, they were all nice, reputable people. I really felt at home there.
BM: And The Soupy Sales Show you were on that, too.
MW: I loved Soupy Sales! White Fang and Black Tooth. I loved it!
BM: And Philo Kvetch and Onions Oregano!
MW: Oniions Oregano–yeah, yeah! They had a gazillion White Fangs’ arms becaues the man doing White Fang kept burning it with his cigar! White Fang rules! I’d love to see the old Soupy tape again.
ML: What was it like dealing with mobs of fans?
MW: A lot of times it was very frightening. One time in an aquarium there was no security and I just about had my clothes ripped off. And the fans with pens almost poking your eye out. There was no security then. We were just winging it. When there’s a lot of them and one of you, it gets scary. I was in the Village one time and there was like thirty bikers and they recognized me. Luckily, they were fans and nothing happened.
BM: When Red Bird went out of business in 1966 and you signed to Mercury, how different was it from Red Bird? Did you notice a change?
MW: Definitely. There really wasn’t much support.
BM: Mercury issued two singles and the greatest hits album. The last Shangri-Las single “Take the Time” from 1967 is weird, a pro-Vietnam record.
MW: I never wanted to record that song. I was completely against the Vietnam War and I protested accordingly. Still, the Shangri-Las supported our servicemen and women and I’ve done many shows for them.
ML: The tough appearance of the Shangri-Las, that wasn’t just an image thing, you really were tough.
MW: In certain ways I am. When you’re a kid and you’re on the road and nobody’s got your back, you better be tough. You better act as tough as you can because they’ll devour you. We scared lots of people away, made lots of bands behave and back down. What else are you going to do?
ML: That wasn’t just you. That was your sister and the twins, too?
MW: Absolutely. It was us against the world, really. Miriam, you would have done the same thing. You would. It was better when we had our own band traveling with us. It was more like a family.
ML: One thing that makes the Shangri-Las different than a lot of female acts of the day, was most of them seemed overprotected. And it virtually was always a family member calling the shots.
MW: Can you imagine? Mommy is there to wipe your nose?
ML: You wouldn’t have had a chance to be tough. It’s what makes you who you are.
MW: Absolutely not. And I’d have been a different person if my father hadn’t died. They’re all life experiences. Some good, some bad. It’s the same thing when everybody’s your best friend and then they suddenly go away. That is a very hard lesson in life. Who are your friends? That is tough stuff. I guess in a way I’m tough. I’m a survivor.
BM: Was there a defining moment when the Shangri-Las split up?
MW: Everybody around us was suing each other. Basically to me, the litigation just got so insane and it wasn’t about music anymore.
ML: Did you go back home?
MW: I moved out on my eighteenth birthday. I moved into a hotel in Manhattan, then Gramercy Park and then I moved to San Francisco for a while. It was hard to get into the music business and it was even harder to get out. I couldn’t go near another record company for ten years.
ML: For the next ten years you couldn’t record?
MW: No. It was absolutely insane. And that was also how long I was still recognized in the street, which made it even more difficult. People don’t realize how comfortable it is being Joe Blow, private citizen. Everybody wants to be a star. I never quite got that, honestly.
ML: But singing was what you wanted to do, and when that was no longer an option, it must have been horrifying.
MW: It was. I lost my way.
ML: Ten year sentence, that’s rough
MW: It was real rough.
ML: It seems like you had a positive feeling and then to have it come crashing down…
MW: Yes and no. I could have pursued it further but how much deeper do you want to get into legal nonsense? At some point you just have to cut it off. I always thought that someday I’d go back to music, I just didn’t know when.
ML: Were you being pigeon holed or typecast? Did you want to do other types of music?
MW: Afterwards? Absolutely. I could have sung lots of stuff. I was always the one who pursued things here and there and I went up to a publisher, but disco was popular and they wanted me to put a gardenia in my hair and ….(dances)
BM: At least you don’t have bad disco albums coming back to haunt you. If you had to pick one song, a post Shangri-Las song by somebody else, to tackle, what would it be?
MW: I love Patti Smith. I always wish I had recorded “Because the Night.” What a great freakin’ song.
BM: The Shangri-Las got back together in 1977 and recorded for Seymour Stein at Sire Records. Seymour worked with the Shangri-Las in the sixties, right?
MW: Seymour was our road manager for a short period of time. Margie was a complete prankster and I don’t think Seymour got it. Kids will be kids. I think the fireworks didn’t set well with him. When we were touring and we were in states that sold fireworks, we always bought them and set them off.
BM: Teenage girls with explosives, what’s not to like?
ML: But nothing you recorded with Sire was ever released. Why was that?
MW: I was very grateful to Seymour years later for giving us a shot with Sire, but it wasn’t there, material-wise. I don’t want anything released that I don’t believe in. It just wasn’t there. I wish (Richard) Gottehrer had been brought in. It just wasn’t right. I welcomed the opportunity from Seymour Stein, but it just didn’t work out. We recorded a few things, but it wasn’t happening.
BM: Did Liz and Margie feel the same way?
MW: Yes, we all did.
BM: But the Shangri-Las did one unannounced show at CBGB at the time.
MW: That was cool! It was impromptu. We just walked in and had fun.
BM: Why didn’t you do more shows like that?
MW: I didn’t want to do old stuff. I could have done that for thirty years.
ML: The Shangri-Las accomplished a lot.
MW: I come from an extremely poor family. The Gansers were relatively poor. Nobody had any money. No money for attorneys. So considering where the four of us came from, with no support, no guidance and nothing behind us, we didn’t have proper outfits onstage. I mean nothing. It’s a miracle in itself to come from those circumstances and have hit records, so I’m very grateful.
ML: So where have you been?
MW: I went to work for an architectural firm and I was seriously into it. Then I got into commercial interiors, huge projects, buildings. Then we hit a point in our lives where you go, “What am I doing?” I knew where I feel at home and I’ve never felt more at home that with music. Either I’m gonna do it or not.
ML: Cool! Welcome back.
MW: Thanks, it’s been way too long. I look forward to recording and my future in music. Long live rock ‘n’ roll.
Reflections, The Definitive Performances: 1964-1969. is a collection of period videos from the vintage years of the Supremes. It’s part of a series Motown put out about a decade back which included similar tributes to the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and Marvin Gaye.
They’re all worth owning. What makes this one stand out is that it is just the videos. The others come with narration, structure, context. This is just the Supremes: Diana, Mary, Flo and a little Cindy, performing, as it were, naked, no matter how spectacular the gowns are.
The performances are all from period television (with a couple of turns from a stage show in Stockholm real standouts–in one of them they prove you can dance the “The Happening” which is on par with repealing the laws of gravity). Thus, the usual mix: Live vocals and backing. Straight lip-synching, with one or the other of the backing singers not always bothering to move her lips being just one of the tells of the massive tensions that simmered inside the group almost from day one). Live vocals to studio tracks. Live lead vocals to studio tracks including studio vocal backing. Promo videos. You name it.
If you like to have fun figuring out that sort of thing, this will keep you hopping. If you are looking for one stellar vocal or visual performance after another, I can suggest you stick with the other titles in the series, especially the one on the Temptations.
If you want to be thrown into an impromptu journey through the glory and chaos that was “the sixties,” this lays the others to waste.
Just be sure to hit “Play All.”
Rest assured, there are glories to behold, the aforementioned Stockholm performances and their “Love Child’ on The Ed Sullivan Show, featuring ghetto fabulous outfits, bare feet, and Diana wearing a tee-shirt that reads “Love Child,” principle among them.
Also, be sure to check the “Studio Audio” version of “Baby Love” from Shivaree, which jumps, and the way they redefine too-cool-for-school on the promo for “My World is Empty Without You,” standing next to a white orchestra in a recording studio that, through the magic of video, psychically connects white teenagers gobbling up albums in a record store with the auto assembly lines everybody at Motown would have been working on if Diana Ross’s beau ideal, Berry Gordy, Jr., had never been born.
But the essence is limned by the extremes.
This version of “Come See About Me,” where, for once, the glamour drops away, and not only are they still the sexiest things walking, you get to hear the neighborhood harmony that was the real reason they were able to fight their way from the streets to the palace–why Gordy, the anti-Phil Spector, who believed his artists should be stars who outshone him, couldn’t stop believing in them through all the months-turning-to-years of the “No-Hit Supremes” back-story that would have underpinned the obvious narrative if the DVD was designed to tell their story. Sure, Diana slept with the boss. Don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got the goods:
Then watch the pure joy of performance devolve into the spirit of anarchy…in a promo, no less, the kind of thing which was invented to suppress every suggestion of unease or disorder…this is the closest I’ve seen to them being allowed to act out. It almost doesn’t matter what song is playing under it.
Unless the song is “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”….
Mary Wilson wrote in one of her memoirs about the pressure the group was constantly under to be “blacker” and what a ridiculous and de-humanizing limitation that was–as though one’s blackness could only be authenticated by adherence to preordained expectations.
She was right.
But Gordy wanted to get all the way to true integration, all the way to the main part of the mainstream, the one place where a new America could finally be forged out of the old one, rather than in lazy, nihilistic opposition to it.
He thought the Supremes, and only the Supremes, were his ticket…and America’s.
He was right, too.
If it didn’t quite work out all the way–if we hove within sight of shore and then, inexplicably, with the harbor in reach, chose to steer back toward the wild, gloomy sea–that’s our fault, not his. Great and successful as all the other Motown acts were, the Supremes, with more #1 pop hits in the sixties than all those other acts combined, were the ones who cashed the ticket on Gordy’s very Rock and Roll dream.
So, in a way, the bare bones approach of this up and down collection is, as the kids used to say, right on time.
I imagine the real reason there’s no narration/context is the permanent tension between Gordy, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross.
But you could also look at it this way:
Given what’s here, what could anyone possibly add?
(This is a new category which I’ve been thinking about adding for a while. Most of them will also be additions to my informal, uncategorized series which I like to call “Scenes From an Actual Boyhood” a play on Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, in which he fantasized about boyhood and left out anything and everything pertaining to boys that didn’t fit the dream life of middle-age soccer moms.)
Back in the Spring of ’77, a time in American history which seems to have left no trace on the future, I was in my junior year of high school in the Florida Panhandle, that part of Florida which is sometimes jokingly, sometimes wistfully, referred to as L.A.: Lower Alabama.
One Monday morning I showed up at school, stepped out of my ride’s car in the parking lot, and felt something different….something I hadn’t felt since the spring of ’74 when I was in the eighth grade in another part of the state known, then and now, as the Space Coast.
I had been in Lower Alabama for three years by then, but the culture shock hadn’t worn off. (Comes to that, I’m not sure it’s worn off yet–must be some reason I prefer living like a hermit.) That feeling in the air when I got out of the car that Monday morning was the closest I had ever felt to a real connection between the two places.
So I knew right away it had something to do with the one thing every Southern place shares with every human space occupied by what are now called “multi” cultures: Race Tension.
The Tension soon had physical manifestations: The sound of a body being thrown against a classroom wall. Black kids with picks and blades trying to decide whether they wanted to descend from the school’s back door to a parking lot (yes, the same one my ride parked in) full of rednecks standing next to pickups with hunting rifles hung in the back windows (the black kids thought better of it–first Rumble averted). Reports of a fight. An actual fight. Then another actual fight.
That was the first couple of days.
After that: A teacher promising to give everybody ten points on next week’s test if the violence planned for Friday recess (planned by who, nobody knew….the plan had its own life, like the new Air) failed to materialize. White boys muttering darkly about the privileges granted blacks. Black kids muttering darkly about the privileges granted whites. Me telling my ride how not entirely unhappy I was to no longer be riding the bus where, in my freshman and sophomore years, I had usually been the only white kid (an experience worthy of its own post some day, now that I’ve opened this can of whup-ass memories).
And, of course, discussions all around about “here it all came from.
A general consensus formed, among white folks at least, that a black kid from New York had moved to the area. Though he didn’t go to our school, he shared Vo-Tech classes with some who did. Word was he had a habit of calling the local kids Uncle Toms for not standing up to the Man, meaning White People, meaning….us. Word was some of them had decided to show him–and us–what they were made of.
It seemed outside agitators had come to Lower Alabama.
Once that idea took hold, no amount of Confederate cannon-fire could have dislodged it.
The additional word was this had all come to some sort of head–at a party? a club? an impromptu meeting of a newly formed local chapter of the Black Panthers?–the weekend before the Monday I showed up at school and, from the nearly empty parking lot, with no evidence available to the eye or ear that suggested it was anything but another school week, I thought, unbidden: This feels like eighth grade.
Through all that I’ve described above and more, that feeling persisted and grew for two full weeks. Every day a little stronger.
There were moments when it not only seemed possible that some terrible thing might happen but that–no matter how many times we white kids reassured ourselves that it would be absurd, ridiculous, suicidal, for black kids to “riot”–there was simply no way it wouldn’t happen.
It was coming. There was no way to avoid it.
Because it was in the Air.
And what did I, no great respecter of the Air, do through all this?
I did what I always did.
i practiced the careful art of doing nothing.
Except for the day when the art of doing nothing sort of accidentally became the art of doing something.
My usual nothing consisted of sitting around during break times–recess, lunch, school assemblies I had a habit of spending in the library—with my nose in a book.
None of that changed during the two weeks of the Race Tension.
Come recess, lunch, assembly, you could still find me, alone in a room, or off in a corner somewhere, reading.
And the time you could be most alone, I found, was recess.
I actually did get out and about a bit at lunch. Even I had to eat.
And not even I could get out of every assembly.
But literally nobody else stayed in his seat reading a book during recess.
Which is why I found it a little odd, on Wednesday of the second week of the Tension–to find myself in Social Studies (my next class), during recess….and not alone.
I was sitting in my usual seat. Second row if memory serves (and dammit, memory, you better serve–this is a memory piece!). And there were several kids sitting behind me.
The room had risers, so they were not only behind me but above me. All black kids–four? five?–whispering among themselves. Whispering, I assumed, because they did not want to be heard by the only other occupant of the room. Namely me. The only white boy.
As time passed, their voices got a little louder. This was a phenomenon I was already a bit familiar with, one which time has consistently reaffirmed: If you are in a room with a group of people from which you are for some reason excluded, they will begin by worrying about whether you can overhear them. If you are quiet long enough, they will become worried that you don’t hear them.
So their voices got louder. And, eventually, I heard them.
They were talking about the Rumble. The new Rumble that was going to be, if nothing else, more effective than the Rumble that had broken on the wave of all those rednecks standing next to all those shotguns. It was going to be more effective because it wasn’t going to be a Rumble. At least not according to any definition I had ever heard.
This was all going to be planned, rather like D-Day. Nothing would be left to chance this time!
Come Friday recess, every black kid was going to find a white kid–their special white kid, by prearrangement with all the other black kids, so there would be no duplication of effort–and “get even.”
This was the memo.
By the Wednesday before the Friday of the new, improved Rumble, everybody had gotten it. Some of the white kids were complaining because all they were allowed to pack was a pocket knife, which wasn’t much good against a steel pick. At least a couple of white kids were rumored to have started carrying their own steel picks (though I confess I never saw one).
And what the black kids who were sitting up behind me at recess on Wednesday in my Social Studies classroom were talking about–I see you Michael. I see you Daryl, Jeffrey, Ricky….Walter, is that you?–was the memo.
Who was going after who.
More time passed and I heard some names: “I got ____!” “You got____?” “Who got ____?”
I also heard their growing indifference to my presence becoming mingled with their increasing need to engage me–their awareness of my awareness of their awareness.
So, finally, one of them–Jeffrey, is that you?–speaking low enough to pretend he didn’t want me to hear and loud enough I couldn’t miss it.
“Who got Ross?”
At which point there was a small silence.
Apparently nobody had Ross.
Which I took for a good excuse to put my finger in my book, bend the page over the finger, and turn around.
I made sure to smile the smile with which Michael and Walter, at least, were intimately familiar and to shake my head.
Then I rolled my eyes.
Then I held up my book.
“If ya’ll get it figured out,” I said. “You know where I’ll be.”
At which point we all started laughing.
Did it matter? Did it matter that it was me? That it was them? That I reacted the way I did? That they reacted the way they did? That I was there, where I always was? That they were there, where they never were?
Maybe the Rumble–the Big One, the Efficient One, the One that Couldn’t Possibly Fail to Come Off This Time!–would have failed to come off anyway.
Maybe one of the hundred other things that can prevent such a thing would have happened and the whole thing would still have died on the vine.
Maybe one–or ninety-nine–of those things did happen and I never heard about it.
So far as I know, none of the others who were in that room with me, ever ventured any ideas about why it never came off. They certainly didn’t say anything to me. After the other kids started filing in, on the Wednesday-Before-the-Friday after recess, it was like it never happened.
What I did notice was that, for me–and I suspect for them–the air broke in that moment we all started laughing.
It broke because, in a single instant and all together, we realized how stupid it all was–and, far more important in our teenage world, how stupid it would all look….if it even tried to come off.
Suddenly, we all saw there was only one way for it not to come off stupid, not to come off looking the one thing no teenage boy ever wants to come off looking–and that was for it to never come off at all.
Coincidentally or not, it didn’t come off.
Of course, when I got out of that class an hour later and walked the halls again, amongst all those people who hadn’t been in that room, I realized that the Air hadn’t broken for anyone else. For everyone else the Tension was still real and palpable. For them, the Rumble was still inevitable and queasy-making. It was still all of that even on Friday afternoon, after first recess, then lunch, had passed into history, and the Rumble hadn’t come off.
Even then, the Air was still the Air.
It still promised we had come to a place–a place perhaps even teenagers in Lower Alabama in a time as lost as the late seventies must come to now and again to feel alive–where anything was possible.
And me and the kids who didn’t know the answer to “Who got Ross?” and everybody else, spent the weekend wondering what the following week would bring.
The confidence in the power of absurdity to finally embarrass everyone into inaction–the power I had felt so strongly in my Social Studies room at recess on the Wednesday-Before-the-Friday–waxed and waned.
Sometimes I laughed. Sometimes I shook my head. Sometimes I felt a little queasy.
Monday morning my ride took me to school like always.
Monday morning, on the drive in, me and my ride made some lame jokes to each other about what the new week would bring.
Monday morning, we drove into the parking lot and nothing felt any different there inside the car, where it was just us, with the Air left over from the weekend and the Friday before.
Monday morning, we rolled to a stop and then opened our car doors like usual.
Monday morning, we stood up in the actual air…and knew instantly that the Air was normal again, and that there was no more explanation for the return of Normalcy than there had been for its abandonment exactly two weeks earlier.
That was when I learned to respect the Air.
Since then, I’ve learned to pay attention to it as well.
It’s how I once knew something as historically insignificant as that it was okay to stay in our seats the last time FSU and the local HBC, Florida A&M, played basketball, even though a hellacious fight (which ultimately resulted in the suspension of the game) was breaking out on the court.
It’s also how I knew, as far ago as the summer before last, something as historically significant as that Donald Trump–a man I had never previously spent ten seconds thinking about–had a real chance to become President of the United States (and why I felt confident predicting his win on this blog).
It’s useful, respecting the Air.
Among many other things, it keeps you from being too surprised.
And, as I’ve mentioned here a time or two, it’s also defined my respect for artists, especially popular artists.
The best of them know the Air far better than you or I do.
They also know it way-y-y-y-y better than the highbrows do.
The Air belongs to the pulps, the singers, the comedians.
That’s why Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry were able to dream Rock and Roll America into being while the intelligentsia slept. It’s why Philip K. Dick’s “science fiction” novels have the jittery feel of the modern Security State down to a tee, while Norman Mailer’s “political” novels feel like ad copy and the famous dystopian models of Orwell and Huxley read like tracts. It’s why Ross Macdonald’s detective stories carry the weight of impending middle class doom and John Updike’s are strings of adjectives. It’s why Mary Weiss’s voice, from 1964, carries everything true that would come to pass in the cross-cultural maelstrom known as “punk” and why Johnny Rotten–who didn’t have the Air–always sounded like a fake to anyone who did. It’s why the primal scream of the inner city crack epidemic can be heard and felt, years earlier, in the voices of Al Green and Marvin Gaye, or the comedy of Richard Pryor, but not in the most beautiful or painful or lucid essays of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. It’s why the muffled moan of the “White Death” meth epidemic that has since descended upon Appalachia can be heard in Patty Loveless’s voice a quarter century ago.
The Artists–the real artists–know. They’re the canaries in every modern coal mine. They’ll tell you about the Air if you let them.
And they’ll keep on telling you.
Whether the big Rumble building just now comes to pass or not.
I’ve been listening to various editions of Rhino’s old twenty-volume Didn’t it Blow Your Mind series for the last few weeks. The series is an excellent overview of 70s soul, and perhaps unique in that emphasizes the breadth and depth of the genre rather than the preeminence of big names like Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder.
Some of those names are present, but, in this context, their records flow by in a river that’s far deeper than any handful of geniuses could have either created or maintained by themselves. Given time I’ll want to write about it at length some day, because the scope really is staggering. I’m not going to say the 70s were the greatest decade for black music–that would be a hard case to prove, given what had gone on during every decade back to the 20s. But if “greatness” were simply measured by now many fine records were made, and how much those records managed to say, then I’ll say it would probably take longer to get to the bottom of the soul 70s than any other decade of black music.
For instance, you can be nodding along, to something like Volume 13 of Didn’t it Blow Your Mind, still knocked out by the hits you know by heart–“Rock the Boat,” “Rock Your Baby,” “Hollywood Swinging,” “Side Show”–and then have your entire perception (er, “mind”) opened up (er, “blown”)–by nothing more than some old pros doing what they do. And if you think, as I do, that these deceptively modest records, huge hits on the R&B chart which also made the pop charts, carry the weight of history as much as big and fabulous crossover smashes like “Tell Me Something Good” (which follows them on Volume 13), you might experience nothing less than an ephipany.