“Dolly Parton’s “My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy,” released as a single in 1969 and included on Parton’s The RCA Years 1967-1986 (RCA), is best heard on the hard-to-find A Real Live Dolly Parton, a 1970 RCA LP recorded at Sevier County High School, Parton’s alma mater, which also features “Bloody Bones,” a ditty about orphans who burn down their orphanage.”
(Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, “Notes and Discographies,” 2008 edition, p. 360, emphasis mine)
“But Warren Smith (1933-80) had no real affinity for the black rhythms rockabilly took off from (though Smith, in his heart an Appalachian balladeer, can be heard for the quirky delight he was on his Classic Recordings: 1956-59, Bear Family, an ideal Sun retrospective that includes the devastating “Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache,” “Ubangi Stomp”–one of the only rockabilly records with the word ‘nigger’ in it–“Black Jack David,” and “So Long I’m Gone.”)”
(Ibid, pp. 368, 369, emphasis mine)
I always wonder. Are they delusional or do they just lie?
I finally got hold of that “hard-to-find” Dolly Parton LP this week, based entirely on Marcus’s recommendation which had been floating around in my head since I read the 1984 edition of Mystery Train. It’s a good album (everything she did in that period was at least good). I didn’t worry too much that the LP’s version of “My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy” was no patch on the studio recording and cut in half to boot, that this clearly wasn’t the best place to hear it. Such things are a legitimate matter of opinion.
But imagine my surprise when, after all these years, “Bloody Bones” which I had never even listened to on YouTube because I wanted to hear it the first time in the full context of Dolly singing it live in front of her home town crowd, turned out to have nothing whatsoever to do with orphans or orphanages or burning anything down. By all means listen, because I could never convey with mere words just how far from the reality Marcus strayed.
While I was reconfirming his account of “Bloody Bones” I read around in the other “Notes” and came across the assertion that Warren Smith, recording for Sam Phillips’ Sun label in the 50’s had actually used the word “nigger” in “Ubangi Stomp” which was his followup to the regional hit “Rock and Roll Ruby” and an obvious attempt to break him nationally.
I’d heard “Ubangi Stomp” a dozen or so times over the years and two or three times very recently and this allegation had me scratching my head. So I listened to the song three more times last night and also looked up the lyrics on the internet.
No one who follows along here will be surprised to learn that Warren Smith did not say “nigger” on “Ubangi Stomp”–a song that is actually about being so caught up by the native music of Africa that the white boy decides to abandon ship and maybe, just maybe, take up with a local girl.
One thing this particular encounter with classic Crit-Illuminati tactics brought to light was a possible reason Marcus, among many others, have treated Bill Clinton like an untouchable hero instead of the snake oil scumbag he so obviously was and remains.
When the reality is too discomforting to confront…make things up.
Unfortunately, per Philip K. Dick, “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
Hence the Nineteenth Maxim:
Pay attention and don’t lie. And if you fail to follow this, don’t be surprised to find yourself living in a world you despise.
Soon after I checked the index of Real Life Rock, the new compilation of Greil Marcus’s “Real Life” columns from 1986 to 2014, I started reading it. Good idea. I’m fifty pages in and it’s already blown past Mystery Train and Lipstick Traces as valuable cultural history.
I might pull that judgment back a bit later, but since I’m still in the Reagan Years and he’s only fallen into the “I’m so edgy” trap a few times (my usual peeve with him…No Greil, Laraine Newman’s nose job was not more tragic than John Belushi’s death), I won’t be surprised if it sustains. We’ll see if I can stand up to the inevitable “Bill Clinton made me feel like an American again” tongue jobs as well, but, for now, I have high hopes and look forward to many happy reading hours.
But speaking of cultural history, one of the things the book is reminding me of is the great CD vs. Vinyl debate of the late eighties. Of course that debate still goes on, albeit in much more muted form, and, by now, I’m pretty much comme ci comme ca. But I was a fierce defender of vinyl back then and a very slow convert to the new order.
There was a reason beyond nostalgia and the fact that CDs were clearly a means to jack up prices, a decision that, following along with the entire eighties-and-beyond approach to the political economy, prized short term profit over not merely long term profit but long term survival. (Worked like a charm, incidentally. Record companies and their multi-corp overlords made out like bandits for about fifteen years. Another fifteen years later, the music industry is toast.)
That additional reason was simple and good: early digital mastering and re-mastering was highly variable in quality. At best, which was seldom, it didn’t improve anything. At worst, which was often, it dispersed sounds that were meant to be fully integrated and sucked the life out of everything it touched.
Over time, this problem was addressed and, if there’s still nothing quite like virgin vinyl, the distance between that and a well-mastered CD (of which there are now many) has long ceased to be any kind of deal killer for me.
But it was tough hump to get over there at the first. Marcus brought the memories flooding back because, in the first part of the book, he frequently writes about the lifeless nature of the wave of poorly conceived and executed oldies’ packages that accompanied the rise of digital technology. I can well remember hearing “Kentucky Rain” on a radio station’s CD player for the first time and saying: “Never!”
I was still young then (how young you’ll find out if you stick with me another minute). I did have a vague idea that never was a long time. CDs were the coming thing, even by 1986. I managed to hold out for four whole years.
Somewhere in there, I accumulated a CD ready receiver. It didn’t mean much at first because, well, I didn’t have a CD player and I certainly didn’t have any CDs.
If you’ve been around here a while, or just know me from the outside world, you probably won’t have any trouble guessing which I bought first.
Ah, but which CD? Which CD made me cough up a few bucks, knowing good and well it might be months yet (or, in my fevered imagination) even years before I actually possessed a CD player?
Don’t even bother guessing. No matter how well you know me, you wouldn’t get it. I wouldn’t even get it myself, just by knowing me.
I had to be there.
There used to be a southern record chain called Turtle’s. In the late eighties/early nineties, something, maybe the CD boom itself, helped them expand beyond their Atlanta base and they opened an outlet in Tallahassee. As record stores went, it wasn’t anything special. Better than the mall stores. Not as good as the old Record Bar. Nowhere near as good as local legend Vinyl Fever.
Still, just about every record store has its merits. At Turtle’s they had a pretty good bargain bin. Along about 1990, I don’t recall if they were carrying any vinyl or not. But I was in there for some reason, maybe just because it was handy to the town’s good video store at the time (both to be shortly subsumed by Blockbuster, may it rest in shattered pieces…in one of life’s rare good jokes, the video store survived by moving to a new location and actually outlasted the giant by some years, though it, too, is now gone).
Whatever the reason for me being there, I happened to start browsing the bargain bin for CDs.
Well, not really browse.
It was more like I stood there, asking myself if it was any way humanly possible that some good could come of just stepping over there and going back to my roots, shuffling through cheap CDs the way I used to shuffle through cheap records. Did I still have the endless patience required to find the occasional nugget among the dross? If not, could I re-acquire it?
Were there any nuggets among this particular pile of dross?
Not much new stuff was getting released on vinyl by then. Maybe nothing was. The memory hazes.
So I stood there, hooked on the horns of a classic dilemma. Not much of a way forward. Certainly no way back.
Then my eye fell on something in particular, sitting up at the front of the bin, and I gave myself a little shake, like I was dispensing with a haint, and took the fateful step that brought me within arm’s reach.
What I saw was this:
Who remembers the cost on the shrink-wrap’s price tag? $3.97 maybe? Sure, let’s go with that. Anyway it was remaindered. Its one big hit hadn’t been enough to keep it from the very large cutout bin at Turtle’s.
Once I determined the hit was on the CD, I tried to put it back. Honestly.
But it kept sticking to my hand, probably because that one big hit kept sticking in my head.
I think I was still sweating when I exited the place, my first CD purchase in hand.
I had paid money, for what I was pretty sure was going to be one song (about that I was right), that I couldn’t play for God knew how long because I didn’t have anything to play it on.
A line had definitely been crossed.
Twelve years later, when the great CD selloff of 2002 occurred, I held back exactly three items. One was the Shangri-Las’ Myrmidons of Melodrama. I’m sure you don’t need me to go on about that. One was a beach music comp that had Billy Ocean’s “Love Really Hurts Without You” on it. I missed it on 45 in 1976 and spent more than twenty years tracking it down. That one I wasn’t letting go.
And one was Jane Wiedlin’s Fur.
Which I held on to for some of the same reasons I had once held on to vinyl for so long that Fur ended up being my first CD.
I had missed “Rush Hour” on 45 in 1988. Assuming it was even on a 45. In any case, I had found it there in Turtle’s in 1990, by which time I had already decided “cassingles” would not be any kind of long term solution to my burgeoning problem–How to get hold of that one song that will drive you crazy if you can’t play it when you want to?
I had missed out on “Rush Hour” and then found it a mere two years later.
On a cheap CD.
Good thing. Because vinyl-wise, I had a better chance of tracking down “Love Really Hurts Without You.”
So I gave in, there in Turtle’s in 1990, and, really, I know it was for the best.
When the old battles finally can’t be won, you develop new strategies. Or let the kids do it. (They have, which is probably why vinyl is still around. Heck they even sell it in places like Books-A-Million now, where it tends to cost more than the CDs.)
Out of my then-new strategy one very peculiar phenomenon arose.
I developed a habit of getting up in front of my speakers whenever I played “Rush Hour” and, more or less, dancing.
The only other song that ever occasionally made me want to do anything similar was the Jackson 5’s “ABC.” The dance I used to do to that–very occasionally–was long past me by 1990. I mean, I turned thirty that year. Unless you’ve stayed in top training, you can’t run in place and clap your hands between your knees when you’re thirty. At least you can’t do it in perfect time for three choruses.
You might still be able to just do the running in place bit, though. Hence, was born the Rush Hour Dance at the Ross apartment.
It went something like this: You run in place for about the first three and half minutes, varying your toe-tap speed in time with the music, but gradually gaining intensity throughout. Then, with about forty-five seconds to go, you move out of “place” and start moving around the apartment in a circle. Short up-and-down steps at first, then longer strides as the record nears the final climax.
Then, if you are at the Ross apartment (as you’ll see in a moment, this should never be tried anywhere else), you come up behind the solid oak table with the slate top that sits between your two recliners, leap into the air and land on the beat, preferably with a windmill or two from the right arm.
And when the song is over, you hop down.
I’m not going to pretend this was some every day occurrence.
But every few months or so, for a few years, it did happen. Mostly it was for private consumption. I have a sterling reputation as a wallflower and I generally prefer to uphold it. Too much pressure, I’ve found, in leaving the world with confused and exalted expectations if you start hinting at previously hidden possibilities.
I can therefore swear that the only time any portion of the Rush Hour Dance was witnessed by other human beings was in 1994, at Doak Campbell Stadium, after Florida State scored a touchdown to tie Florida at 31-31 in the waning minutes of the game.
There was plenty of room to run in place on the row in front of me, because the people sitting all along it had shown perfectly good common sense and departed twelve minutes earlier when the score was 31-3.
If we had gone for two and made it, who knows? I might have added the leap.
As it happened, the leap was not long for the world and neither was the Rush Hour Dance.
There came a day in 1998 (or so), when I realized I hadn’t done it in a while. In fact, I hadn’t really done it since I moved to my house in 1995.
So it began to bug me a bit. Could the Rush Hour Dance be transferred?
It was one of those questions that could not go long unanswered.
Punch in Track Two.
Start running in place. Play air guitar. (Oh, did I forget to mention that? That’s important. You have to play air guitar. Otherwise you just feel stupid.)
Keep it up for three minutes plus. Feel the music. Feel the need to break out.
Start running in your circle.
Move out to the left, around the second recliner, just like always.
Become lost in ecstasy, as though time has stood still.
Realize that time has not really stood still, because your legs never used to burn like this.
Sing along. (Oh yeah, did I mention that while you’re running in place, and then just running, and playing air guitar, you have to sing? Otherwise what’s the point?)
Run along behind the recliner. Move toward the table.
Don’t look at it.
No fair looking.
Judge the leap. Get in perfect time, with “Rush Hour” and the universe.
Leap and turn at the same time.
Rise into the air.
Reach the peak.
Smile as it comes back to you that this elevation you somehow achieve during the Rush Hour Dance is at least a foot higher than you can jump normally.
Recall at that very instant, that your solid oak, slate topped table, has been replaced by a cheap piece of plaster board and plastic tubing that will be crushed like a grape if anything larger than a marble lands on it from your present height.
Imagine yourself in traction.
Think fast, at the hyper-speed which, in fact, only the Rush Hour Dance permits.
Point your toe like a freaking ballerina.
Continue soaring through the air.
Skim lightly over the surface with a single skip you could never repeat in a thousand years and land safely and squarely on your feet in front your speakers.
In perfect time.
Fall into one of your recliners, who cares which one, laughing hysterically like a man who just escaped being shot at.
Take ten minutes to fully catch your breath.
Resolve to retire the Rush Hour Dance. Forever.
Know that you, and the dance, went out on top, with Jane Wiedlin whispering in your own ear, and that of every Rio-t-t-t Girl and Pop Tart ever born: “We’re still the Go-Go’s. And you’re still not.”
Have a nice weekend. I have to get back to reading.
Like a lot of people my age or younger, the first I heard of Across 110th Street was in Greil Marcus’ Sly Stone chapter in Mystery Train. And, although I’ve owned Bobby Womack’s haunting title song on a handful of comps over the years, it took me until last night to see the film.
I haven’t been avoiding it. Marcus made it sound like it was worth seeing and, until his obsession with punk came along, I usually found his recommendations worth tracking down (still do, when his obsession with punk doesn’t get in the way). It just never cycled to the top of the list.
It’s a strange kind of blaxploitation film, so strange I’m not sure it even fits the genre, strictly speaking. I’m no expert. Except for the Shaft films and Superfly (all enjoyable on a spaghetti western level) I’m clueless. With the local video stores out of business and me at least as allergic to streaming as I ever was to video games I’m likely to remain so.
But I’m glad I finally caught up with this one. I don’t know where it stands in blaxploitation but it’s a great gangster film, on a level with the original Scarface and White Heat at the top of the American heap. (Once more for the record, I’m no great fan of the Godfather movies. Though I admire the enormous skill with which they were made, I’m not really interested in seeing psychopaths being anything but offed, which I guess means I’m the rare person who has seen the films and wished the body count was higher.)
The body count in Across 110th Street isn’t just high, it’s personal. The “edgy” or “extreme” or “gory” violence which impressed Marcus, Leonard Maltin and pretty much everybody else in 1972 no longer stings. As I’ve occasionally noted before, that’s the problem with the edge. It keeps moving. Today’s stomach-churner is tomorrow’s yawn.
But this one strikes home anyway, because it’s mixed up with people and their dreams. Those dreams are crystallized in a single scene. The three black men who ripped off the mob to start the plot rolling have been hunted down one by one, each tortured until he gives up the others. The remaining survivor goes on the lam and heads back to his hold neighborhood, which is abandoned.
The journey only takes a few seconds of screen-time and most of it looks like this:
That’s when the film’s underlying question comes into focus.
Just what would you do, to escape from this?
The man in the picture racks up a body count that is somewhere north of a dozen, with mobsters and cops falling in about equal measure.
He doesn’t make it. But he leaves the world with something you would have bet a million souls he couldn’t possibly possess in the film’s opening sequence. Call it Honor and, however curiously achieved, it’s by no means certain anyone left standing can make a similar claim.
The whole movie is exciting, in step with its own time and with ours. But it’s anchored in that single image. Without it, for all its other fine elements, including superb performances all around, it would just be cops and robbers, well orchestrated and ultimately empty.
With it, it has what you might call an extremely rare kind of seventies’ edge.
Nashville Skyline, which Dylan released in 1969, was the first album from him that could have been mistaken for being disengaged from the times. Not only is there nothing like an obvious protest song–in either topical or abstract form–the singing and playing are literally old-fashioned to a fault, a move that’s emphasized by a lead track that’s a duet with Johnny Cash in his best vocal equivalent of blank-verse.
But, while Skyline was superficially treated at the time (and for the most part since) as a version of “country rock”–or, having been recorded in Nashville itself with truly modest arrangements–just “country” that happened to be recorded by a rock star, it was really rooted in a musical value system that was more akin to nineteenth century parlor music.
Beyond the superficial, I don’t know if this comes as news to anybody but me. I’ll confess I’m not really up on whatever deep scholarship might exist concerning this album. And, to tell the truth, I’ve never really listened to it much outside of two tracks which happened to be on one of those old two-fer-one oldies’ forty-fives that record companies used to put out in the seventies and early eighties. I bought the 45 (long before I even knew there was an album called Nashville Skyline) for the A-side (“Lay Lady Lay”) and started listening to the B-side (“I Threw It All Away”) a few years later, after I read Greil Marcus’ famous “Presliad” essay in Mystery Train, where, in 1974, he had imagined it as something like Elvis Presley’s epitaph several years before Elvis’ death.
As I’ve been gradually striving for some sort of Dylan completism on CD in recent years, I ordered Nashville Skyline (which finishes the sixties!) on disc and it showed up in the mail yesterday, then found its way to my automobile’s good old-fashioned CD player (so-o-o-o twentieth century) last evening, when I had to drive in to work to figure out why my twenty-first century computer wasn’t linking the office (construction messing with the internet btw, and no telling when it will be fixed, so if you think I’ve been doing some slow posting here lately, don’t worry, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!).
Forced to be alone with the entire record and give it my full attention for once, I might not have found much more in it than I ever found before. Except that, in context, a throwaway ditty called “Peggy Day” sounded so exactly like a man who wasn’t much of a singer trying to woo a sweetheart in 1905 somewhere in an Indiana living room with hardwood floors gleaming and Booth Tarkington taking notes for a short story, that I found it irresistibly charming and even–for 1969–a bit daring and even visionary.
Mind you, I say that is how it sounded. I got no notion, merely from listening to that sound, as to what the song might be about, though I’d be surprised to learn it was about much.
What the pure sound of the thing did, however, was haul the track that came before it (which happened to be “I Threw It All Away”) and the track that came after (which happened to be “Lay Lady Lay”) into a new kind of light.
“Lay Lady Lay” (rather like Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of “(Leaving On A) Jet Plane”–which hit #1 not long after Dylan’s record hit the Top Ten, but which had been recorded and released as an album track three years earlier and which I could easily imagine having informed Dylan’s increasingly laid back vocal approach throughout the late sixties) suddenly sounded like a search for peace among terrible turmoil.
And, while I didn’t hit the track search and go back to “I Threw It All Away,” it lingered in my mind until after midnight, when I was home again and found myself glued to CNN’s episode from its series on The Sixties, which was either about Martin Luther King or the Civil Rights Movement in general (having missed the intro, I couldn’t tell).
And, amidst the street-level tumult and mountain-top shouting, I found that: “Once I had mountains, in the palm of my hand, and rivers that ran through every day/I must have been mad, I never knew what I had…until, I threw it all away” no longer had anything to do with Elvis Presley or Bob Dylan’s lost lover, and had become irrevocably about, well, 1969.