“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.
In January, as a New Year’s Resolution, I committed myself to read at least five books a month. In February, I decided to increase the goal to ten. Met it! Top of the world, Ma, and all that. With all the other irons I have in the fire, I doubt I can keep the pace, but, for now…
Kipling’s famous collection of poems dedicated to the British Tommy at their Empire’s high tide (you know, the one we’ve tried to slavishly imitate). He knew that Empire’s sun-never-sets-blood-never-dries underbelly first hand. He also knew what and who maintained it, and that hey did so shorn of any glory except what a simpatico spirit such as himself could shed on them.
And, oh, by the way, nearly every line still sings. He wasn’t just a great popular poet, but a distinctly musical one, at least the equal of Stephen Foster for rhythm, power, and ingenuity. I imagine he taught the Beatles a thing or two, if only subconsciously.
He was far more political of course than either Foster or John Lennon. He had seen what was under the underbelly as well and, cold-eyed as he often was about what was glimmering up top (where the merchant and officer classes rubbed shoulders with celebrity, royalty and each other–sound familiar?), was still more wary of collapse than of decadence. At least until the Great War came along, he was the poet laureate of the Devil he knew and this is where he found his purest form of expression. Recommended as an antidote to Gilbert and Sullivan, and vice versa.
The Story of Motown(1979)
A publishing industry quickie (they proliferated in the late seventies) that serves as a sketch biography of Berry Gordy, Jr., one of the most important men in the history of 20th century America.
It’s earned a reprint because it catches Motown at the moment of its imminent decline, which, not coincidentally, was closely related to Gordy’s increased detachment from his creation. That is was Gordy’s creation, and a near-perfect reflection of his titanic strengths and not inconsiderable weaknesses for as long as he remained at its core, Benjaminson leaves no doubt. There’s no way he can do full justice to either in the space allotted and nobody in a position to provide that space was looking for a door-stopper tome on Berry Gordy or Motown in 1979. You have to put up with the usual narrative shortcuts (many of which I spend my blog-life refuting), but this is a good, swift introduction to a subject which, like the American Revolution, we can never know enough about.
Though I’ve seen several of the movies based on his work, and they’ve all been pretty good, this is the first Grisham novel I’ve read. I’m assured by those in the know that it’s atypical and would have guessed as much without those assurances. Even here, I can attest he’s the good popular novelist I always heard he was. It’s an easy read. The only thing missing is the necessary ingredient in any pulp that seeks to provide something more than a temporary diversion: a sense of danger.
It’s not that I didn’t want anybody to die. I didn’t. Or that I wouldn’t have felt sad if they did. I would have.
It’s that I never thought they would. I’ll read more in the future for sure, but I might choose more carefully.
The Dud Avocado (1958)
Dundy is known to Elvis fans for writing Elvis and Gladys, the best book about E’s relationship with his mother, and one of the best books about him from any angle.
This is her only famous novel and it has devoted fans across the board.
Now that I’ve finally read it, I’ll call myself a semi-devoted fan. It’s an American-in-Paris tale with a twist, the twist being not so much that Dundy’s protagonist is a woman, but that she’s a generation late (check the publication date) and knows it without quite being willing to admit it, even to herself. The comedy, quite sharp and satisfying, comes from the narrator’s understanding of how self-conscious and temporary it all is, not just for her, but for everyone. Add that to a sharp, satirical eye for physical and psychological detail and the act of reading it can be judged very much like seeing Paris once upon a time. It’s something everyone should do at least once.
Whether the necessity of reading The Dud Avocado in order to feel you’ve experienced one of life’s great pleasures will fade along with the idea of Paris itself is something we will discover when that idea is gone. For now, if you can’t quite feel the vitality of the idea itself, you can at least feel the echo as you read along, chuckling where you once might have laughed out loud.
The Heat of the Day(1948)
I spend a lot of reading time in the company of good writers–the older I get the less patience I have for anyone who is less than good.
But it’s always a little shocking to find myself back in the company of a great one. The only previous novel of Bowen’s I’d read was Eva Trout. That was a long time ago and made enough of an impression that I knew I could never renew the acquaintance casually.
This one involves a strange menage-a-trois, the more interesting half of which is never consummated either physically or emotionally (hand a merely good writer that scenario and see if they can pull it off). It takes place in war-time Britain and portrays in luminous, hard-hearted detail a handsome widow’s relationship with the two men who seek the replace her husband, one a suspected spy, the other the government agent pursuing him. The plot is the plot, and a good one, but there are only three or four ways it can go, and it goes one of them. Any special notice the novel receives or deserves (and it has received and deserved quite a bit), is due to Bowen’s exquisite command of language, which is on a level with Mrs. Wharton and Henry James. If that’s your sort of thing, this is for you. If it’s not, you’ll have to be satisfied with never knowing what you’re missing.
Don’t be surprised if that includes Elizabeth Bowen having your number.
Don’t worry, though. You are hardly alone.
The One From the Other(2006)
Fifteen years after his Berlin Noir trilogy was a bit of a sensation in the world of hard-boiled crime fiction, Philip Kerr resurrected his Berlin-born detective, Bernie Gunther, in a post-war setting.
As often happens with successful pulp novelists, Kerr’s books got longer over time as his ambition grew.
As does not often happen, this one pays off. The length entails growth for a change. His post-Chandlerisms still don’t work. (Have they ever worked for anyone but Chandler?) But this one has an emotional resonance that goes beyond the milieu and the plot and touches the detective himself.
Post-War Germany as depicted here is a place where there is literally no safe harbor and Bernie Gunther’s attempt to find one ends in real tragedy. I look forward to finding out if Kerr resolved the danger Ross Macdonald–one of the few pulp writers who managed to go this far and further–identified as using up your character. MacDonald’s solution was to give his detective no dimension at all, to have him operate as a ghost in the machinery of his surroundings. Kerr has cut himself off from that possibility. Bernie Gunther now has dimension.
It will be fun finding out where Kerr took it from here.
The Unmaking of Adolf Hitler(1996)
This is the second part of Davidson’s magisterial study in political character. The title is odd on the surface since the vast bulk of this lengthy book details (some might say ad nauseam) deals with what most would consider Hitler at high tide as, step-by-step he conquered or cowed all of continental Europe from the Enligsh Channel to the suburbs of Moscow.
But Davidson’s point–which he’s not alone in making, though few have gone to such lengths or addressed the issue with this much scholarship and erudition–is that Hitler’s weakness came from the same source as his strength. That the megalomaniac is always bound to overreach because every success can only tempt him to go further.
That’s a comforting thought I suppose for those who survived him. But, of course, tyrants just as evil, rapacious and ambitious (Hitler and Mao come to mind) have died in bed with all their dreams intact (as Mao’s still is). By focusing only on Hitler’s words and deeds as they related to his accrual of first political, then military, then imperial, power, and avoiding speculation about the inner man, Davidson has certainly rendered an important service. It should make anyone who has the stomach for it want to look deeper…
Large tomes on Hitler, Stalin and Mao that promise to do just that have rested on my shelves for years.
I feel them beckoning.
The Plot Against America(2004)
Philip Roth. Hmmmm…
Good writer. I might have guessed that from the only book of his I’ve read previously which was the slight-if-engagiing Goodbye Columbus.
Then again, my attempts to read a few others of his, plus my encounters with his generation’s other ponderous heavyweights (Mailer, Updike, Bellow), had put me off this for years, so any surprises I discovered regarding this late-period novel’s crisp delivery were pleasant ones.
The main problem is that he has set the novel in an alternate universe and he’s not the man for the job, even if he assigned it to a prepubescent version of himself (named Philip Roth no less). Philip K. Dick would have known that the story here was inside Charles A. Lindbergh, the man Roth has winning the presidency in 1940 and leading America down the path of isolationism, effectively siding with Hitler in his fight against the Brits and Soviets.
It’s not one of history’s more likely what-ifs. Despite being a leading spokesman for the original America First movement, and a well-known laissez-faire attitude about the Nazis when he wasn’t praising them, Lindbergh never expressed the least interest in running for office. There were many he could have had for the asking, though the presidency wasn’t one of them. He’d have had to fight for that, so to make his parallel universe persona credible we would need to be inside him.
Without that perspective, which Dick would have known was essential and Roth doesn’t even attempt, this impeccably-written novel would go nowhere even if the author had the stomach to bring his tragedies front and center instead of assigning them to the margins. They’re still felt, but more as an exercise in mental gymnastics than a gut-punch.
Not just what if, then, but merely what if.
Wasted opportunity then. All that good writing, too. Shame that.
Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941(2013)
All of which is why I’m glad I read The Plot Against America in tandem with this history of the wrangling between the interventionists and the isolationists in the years leading up to America’s entry into WWII.
Without resorting to the usual minutiae, Olson is able to get at the essential characters of the story’s two protagonists in a way that gives them just enough dimension to see them in the human terms such history usually deny such outsized characters. Somewhat alike in their icy aloofness and relative indifference to any damage they might be doing to the people closest to them, they differed in one key aspect: Roosevelt was a thoroughly political man who accepted socialization as part of the process while Lindbergh was a thoroughly apolitical man who found himself dragged into political situations because of his enormous fame and the area of his expertise (flying) which happened to coincide with military interests that couldn’t exactly be ignored with the world on fire and America bound to play some role.
What that role would be was a question that consumed both men. Lindbergh ended up having his personal and historical reputation shattered by his belief (shared by tens of millions of Americans even after the fall of France and right up to Dec. 7, 1941) that no European war was worth what an American intervention would cost. Once the evils of National Socialism were fully exposed by its defeat, no one who had been blind to the known depredations of the thirties could expect to fully recover.
Roosevelt, on the other hand, by far the more devious of the two on matters of principle, was vaulted to near-sainthood by having his half-hearted commitment tuned into full-bore interventionism by events. (Before Dec. 7 he was all for things like conscription and Lend-Lease, but little more committed to the idea of American boys sacrificing their lives for the good of humanity than the strict isolationists Lindbergh represented, and often accused of dragging his feet by those who are always ready to commit someone else’s life to their latest cause. In other words, the political man was a political realist and the foot he kept in each camp might have ensured his reputation irrespective of Amerian’s involvement or noninvolvement, so long as neither prospect involved actually losing.)
Olson does a fine job of telling the basic story, and that job entails leaving a crucial aspect of Lindbergh’s character, his pursuit of a double-life, until the very end, where it damns him more thoroughly than even his most dubious public pronouncements (of which there was no shortage).
Whether Roosevelt himself is redeemed only by forces beyond his control or deserves full credit for such foresight as he possessed, given that it was just enough to preserve Western Civilization for a few decades past its sell-by date, is left to the eye of the beholder.
The Last Battle(1966)
The last leg (though second published) of Ryan’s epic trilogy of the Allied invasion of Europe from Normandy onwards. As the title indicates, this one is dedicated to the fall of Berlin.
The books are all classics of the New Journalism Ryan helped invent, of history and of popular literature. Though unlike the others (The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far) this one did not contribute a common phrase to the English language, it is just as thorough, just as fast-paced and just as vital. If anyone has bested his accounts of the events to which he chose to dedicate himself, I’m not aware of it and in any case, it’s unlikely any serious scholarship going forward can fail to take him into account. He might end up being the Edward Gibbon of the Reich’s defeat.
I waited far too long to read them all. Ryan’s are among the rare books I can finish at my age and feel like I’m finally a little bit closer to being educated.
[NOTE: For more advanced and detailed thoughts than I’d be willing/able to provide without re-watching Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and/or re-reading Philip K. DIck’s source novel (both terrific…I just lack the time), you can go here, for Noel Vera’s review. I should probably have this site in my blogroll anyway. Soon, I promise. Spoilers in Noel’s review, but, since he’s doing the heavy lifting, none here.]
At least on a first viewing, I had the impression (it can’t be more than that on such brief acquaintance) that Denis Villenueve’s Blade Runner 2049 has surpassed Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (to which it is a sequel), as the best adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s world-view. It might even stretch that view a inch or two, which would be about as far as such a view can ever be stretched. All Dick’s big themes are there. Madness vs. sanity. Reality vs “reality.” Man’ s relationship to technology. The precise point at which one thing turns into another (man into machine, sanity into madness, “reality” into reality….or vice versa).
Creating a visual equivalent of Dick’s flat but evocative prose (except in his ability to place dreams next to nightmares with disarmingly casual ease, he was no stylist…when you can do that, who needs style?), has never been easy. Steven Spielberg tried it in Minority Report and didn’t come close. But Scott got pretty close in the original Blade Runner (is there such a thing as pedestrian grandeur?) and I think Villeneuve (with Scott producing) got even closer here, in a film that toys with the original humans vs replicants (or humans using replicants, unless, of course, it’s really the other way round) concept with just enough verve and nerve to touch something new. Seeing 2049 on a big screen (to be fair, I’ve only caught the original on tape and disc) I felt myself getting a touch emotional on a couple of occasions.
But was it me…or some spiritual simulacrum I conjured for the purpose of reclaiming a younger self who might have responded even more strongly, which was certainly more appropriate than my current self, who kept threatening not to respond at all?
Those are the kind of questions Dick’s novels always asked of me (I wouldn’t presume to speak for others, as I can imagine interpretations sufficiently different to make mine seem as incomprehensible to others as theirs would be to me), and Blade Runner (at least in its “director’s cut” version) almost asked as well. It was both refreshing and disturbing to feel those emotions watching 2049. Which I guess means it made me feel a bit more alive–not something I often experience watching movies made this millennia.
This is made a bit more interesting–to me and my simulacra anyhow–by how little I was taken with the first twenty minutes or so, when Ryan Gosling seemed even flatter than usual and the beauty Villenueve and his team would bring to some of the later scenes had yet to manifest itself fully. Whether the movie got better as it went along or simply took over my senses I can’t say. (I’d hate to say it overwhelmed my mind,. That would be creepy and I’d hardly feel comfortable recommending it to others–which I very much want to do–if I admitted all that. But I did catch myself observing myself once or twice. Only from the next seat over. I don’t want you to think I was having some kind of episode.)
Once the film did take hold, though, it was riveting, and remained so, no matter how often I replicated and re-converged. There were times when I wanted to be in this film’s world. And, when you’ve seen it, as you really should, you’ll know just how crazy that is.
Curse you Denis Villenueve. You’ve made me irrational. You’ve made me think I could accept being Ryan Gosling! Harrison Ford was one thing but this smacks of evil.
And curse you Philip K. Dick. You’ve blurred the distinction between Dystopia and Utopia yet again–and without contributing a word. Years after I swore I was past all this, I now spend part of every day looking over my shoulder and around corners. Maybe only metaphorically, but still….I came out of the theater wishing I lived in a land where Donald Trump was president despite everything the FBI could do.
That will never happen, of course. Walking out next to me, my simulacra-self at least reassured me of that!
“We had so much fun in two years, there was no more fun to be had.”
John Phillips (from A Gathering of Flowers, intro to “California Dreamin'”)
The career of the Mamas & the Papas played out with a kind of classical purity. They embodied the dark and the light of “the Sixties” by living lives that were consummately hedonistic and making music that was almost completely self-referential.
“Don’t worry,” their best music said, and says, ” if you aren’t here yet, you will be.”
“It’s also entirely possible,” that same music said, and says, “that we’ll have moved on by then.”
To make it work, they needed to carry off a style of organic arrogance that made the Rolling Stones look like supplicants.
They made it work.
Naturally, being organic, it couldn’t last.
Funny thing, though.
I keep trying to get to the bottom of it.
And I can’t.
Oh sure, there were greater groups. Greater artists. And I have no idea how they seemed in their own time. I was in second grade.
I know how they seem now, from this time: Unfathomable.
And what better description of their time can you get?
Their backstory became famous. In “Creeque Alley” they even made it sound famously typical, which, except for selling millions of records, it maybe was.
But, when I say there were greater artists, I really only mean there were artists whose greatness the Great Narratives imposed by others accepted more readily.
Because whenever I want to cast myself back there–and boy do I–there’s nobody I listen to more, nobody more dangerous, more unsettling, more….thrilling. Their time was the time worth understanding, the time we never walked away from in either dream or (more’s the pity) reality.
And, in memory at least, they are the ones who held it in their hands, more one with that time than literally anyone, one of exactly two sixties’ acts–two any-era acts really–who might have had a deal with the Devil in place.
They were different than the Stones, though. Mick and Keith (well, mostly Mick) just went ahead and made a straight deal. Why not? What did it cost them?
Send Brian Jones to the funeral pyre he was already bound for and tweak John Lennon’s nose now and again and what riches might await!
Who wouldn’t take that deal?
Besides, they were Brits and there was never going to be any more England anyway. Big whoop.
But to have punched a hole in the American boat, to have had your wings melt so close to that sun, ah, now we’re talking subversion–and arrogance–of truly epic proportions.
Come hither, their deal said, and you’ll be the only act alive who can (as the liner notes for one of their many anthologies had it) bridge Rodgers & Hart and Monterey Pop.
Who wouldn’t take that deal?
Well, somebody like me maybe. But that’s different. I was in second grade.
When I was in fourth grade, a couple of years after the Mamas & the Papas broke up (their two years of so much fun there was no more to be had having run out), I took the other deal, the Christian believer deal. I took it, knowing even then, that the biggest part of the deal lay in knowing I’d never be safe from the Devil who makes the deals (he doesn’t bother with the nonbelievers once they make their deal, why would he?) and never have so much fun there’d be no more to be had.
That’s as much as I ever knew about the deal. What my background and choices did prepare me for was understanding singers and their power.
And, oh what singers they were, those four, when they were together in their time. Nobody like them. And it wasn’t like they didn’t know it. Their knowing it is evident in pretty much every photograph they ever sat for.
…and pretty much every line they ever sung.
How they got together was famous even in their own time. They didn’t have to wait for biographers, which was just as well, since there’s never been a good one.
Naomi Cohen reimagined herself as Cass Elliot, then Mama Cass. Then she hung around until the others took her in, or on, or…something.
John Phillips reimagined himself as the type of erstwhile folkie who could end up with Michelle Gilliam, who soon reimagined herself as Mrs. Phillips (“I liked folk music,” she said much, much later, “but what I really liked were folk musicians!”)
Denny Doherty, a touch uncomfortable imagining himself as settling for the title of Mister Cass Elliot, soon reimagined himself as somebody who could have an affair with Mrs. Phillips and was lucky–or was it unlucky?–enough to find her willing to share his illusion, be it ever so briefly.
That was just the personal stuff.
Out of that, the music.
John Phillips said, as often as anyone would listen, that he couldn’t write from anything but experience. So they had experiences. That whole thing about a lifetime’s worth in two years was just an excuse to make hits and money. No experiences, no hits. No hits, no money. The legend only came about because they were so good at living lives so many others wished they could live, and even better at singing about it. They reeled off a dozen radio classics in short order and four albums that stagger about a bit, but never quit yielding surprises when you stop and listen close enough. (A fifth, from a contractually obligated “reunion” gig a few years later, was desultory….there was no more fun to be had.)
Their own rise, their own Zeitgeist, their own fall, their own destruction: all right there in the music that came out of the experiences.
For about twenty-five or thirty perfect months (depending on who’s counting and who’s defining perfect), they lived more dreams than four mere lifetimes could hold.
But in order to get the loot, they had to let the world in on it, and from the release of “Go Where You Wanna Go” (instantly pulled in favor of the just-as-perfect “California Dreamin’,” which somebody had initially made the very weird mistake of imagining as a Barry McGuire record) to having the commercial failure of “Safe In My Garden” assured by their sudden absence from their own lives (no more touring, no more television appearances, no more pretending everything, or even anything, was all right) the world grabbed hold. You could say the world has never let go.
And the arc was perfect.
“Go Where You Wanna Go” can’t be plumbed. Don’t even try. Even if you make a definitive decision on You don’t understand, that a girl like me can/can’t have just one man–that is, whether you want to stick with the lyric sheet (the groupie/muse’s ultimate lament) or what the ear can’t help hearing (Women’s Lib on speed!) at least some of the time–it doesn’t really help, so there’s no need to get all balled up about it. I’ve gone there for you and my sincere advice is to go right on thinking it’s simple. It’s not. It’s not even complicated in any ordinary dictionary sense of the word. More like kaleidoscopic.There’s so much going on that if you stop believing it’s simple or go on pretending that it’s complicated but only in the usual ways, it will eat your mind out from the inside.
It will make it like the good part of the Sixties never even happened except in dreams.
You don’t want that!
Better to just go on a journey. “California Dreamin'” so to speak.
It’s a journey only they can take you on and the magic’s in the music for sure–the mostly sharp writing, the Wrecking Crew time and again measuring up to the instrumental challenge of matching and underpinning the vocals, the formal elements of the bottomless harmonies.
But mostly the magic’s in the elements there is no real vocabulary for, musical or otherwise.
It’s not in the come hither. It’s in the nah-na-na-na-nah.
..Which starts right there in “California Dreamin’.”
I mean, from this distance you can hear the fear in it–and you can hear it overridden, stomped on. Put out to pasture. it was the sound that mattered and it was the sound that did it.
We’re so close, the sound said, that the obvious–and fierce to the point of at least metaphorical bloodletting–competition going on, can be turned on its head. They were so determined to be as one that all the counterpointing in the harmonies, all the “yeah’s” that meant “no” and all the “no’s” that meant “yeah”–or “yeah?”–were as nothing. I mean, just listen to them! And, as Lou Adler would have it (naming their first album If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, easily the best-ever album title, after his first audio/visual impressions of the group) just look at them.
The imagery was perfect, almost as if it had been guided into existence by the unique, unsurpassable blend of their voices.
Or perhaps those voices demanded the acceptance of any old imagery they chose as the new definition of perfection.
The dream of the “Sixties” is, after all, right there.
Today will be what we want it to be.
You know, go where you wanna go.
Even the drugs will be cool. I mean….especially the drugs will be cool…
And, by extension, if today will be just what we want it to be, tomorrow will be even better!
In one fell swoop, the Folkies from Everywhere–Mexico, So-Cal, No-Cal, Nova Scotia, Alexandria (Virginia, but it might as well have been Egypt), the Hungry I and the Village and the Virgin Islands, fusing into one–had re-formatted the Protestant Reformation’s promise of a future Golden Age (itself the rejection of the age-old idea that the Golden Age lay in the past, a rejection that set Europe’s Ice People on a staggering five-hundred-year winning streak of which, as of 1966, “Go Where You Wanna Go” seemed like no more or less than the natural conclusion and justification–yes it meant, and means, that much–your refusal to believe in it doesn’t negate its refusal to acknowledge your silly refusals).
There was, of course, no direction to head from there except Utopia or the Long Fall.
We know–perhaps they even knew–where that fork in the road always leads.
You can have the greatest vocal group in history and just happen to include among your number one of the Rock Era’s two or three finest vocal arrangers who just happens to be an ace songwriter.
You can hook up with a great producer and have unlimited access to the best session players in the world–the only people, perhaps, who could ever hope to match your Utopian vocal and visual presence to sounds worthy of comparison (and, believe me, if you ever get around to listening to what’s going on behind the vocals, you’ll find the Wrecking Crew at the far edge of their own weighty experience–not even for Pet Sounds or Frank Sinatra did they reach further). You can be the only group of any era to have great male and female lead singers, breathtaking close and counterpoint harmonies, the ability to answer male and/or female calls with male and/or female responses, and to have the answers be vocal/lyrical affirmations and/or refusals.
You can hold all that in your hand while you take the coolest drugs, ride around in the fastest cars, sleep in the biggest, spookiest movie star mansions with the partners of your choice under the world’s most beautiful skies.
You can even promise to share it with your listening audience–to transport them into your world, three golden minutes at at time.
And you can deliver over and over again.
But that choice between the Garden you found and the Mean Old World you couldn’t quite leave behind will linger on.
For you and the world.
That deal you made with the Devil will still have a payoff–and a due date.
For you….and the world.
In their case the payoff was in a run of gold records. Hell, they even sold albums like hotcakes, in an age when not many did.
The due date was the same as America’s. And the world’s.
By the time it was done, they were done.
Then the Mean Old World moved on–or pretended to.
They gave up and disbanded, the first of the great Utopian Sixties’ groups to do so. (The Byrds never really disbanded–pieces just kept falling off until nothing was left but the name. A very different process, but those were the two paradigms. Break up…or linger on. When the Doors and the Beatles broke up, they were copping the Mamas & Papas’ style. When everybody else lingered on, the pieces just kept falling off and they ended up being worse than nothing.)
That left the question of who got it and who didn’t.
Time has given us the answers, even if nearly everyone is reluctant to admit it.
We need not speak of what Lyndon Johnson, lingering on in the White House, understood. But in the Pop World that existed in the summer of ’68, it turned out that only Elvis Presley, reporting to a series of TV sound stages and with God on his side, and the Mamas & the Papas, cooped up in John and Michelle’s mansion a few miles away, concluding their deal with the Master of this world, understood that we would never walk away from 1968.
From a Pop Political standpoint, the Beatles now sound like clever children, the Stones like mere cynics. Bob Dylan was already retreating into the rusticism his great mid-sixties albums had promised an escape from. The Byrds lay in pieces on the ground and Brian Wilson had already blown his mind.
And, as Pop Prophets went, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison were finally only self-destructive.
But at least they made great music.
Never mind the Thinkers. No need to pay even a modicum of attention to them.
Whoever you thought they were, time has already washed them away.
We’re left with who got it. Who looked around at the world of 1968 and said: We’ll never walk away from this.
Well, these people:
Naomi Cohen (32) died of heart failure in a London hotel in 1974.
John Phillips died in 2001 (65) never having emerged from the drug-induced haze produced by having so much fun in two years there was no more to be had.
Denny Doherty (66) died in Mssissauga, Ontario in 2007, worn down by years of alcoholism.
Michelle Philips will still show up to defend her group’s legacy. She probably hopes you won’t ask too many questions about the incest allegations John’s oldest daughter has made.
It all seems so very long ago.
And so very present.
Today, you might go on the internet and find an essay that describes “Safe In My Garden” as “happy” and “bucolic,” as though it represents an ode to a safe space replete with milk and cookies and teddy bears.
That represents real fear, I think. An understanding–an awareness of the terror abiding within the song’s formal beauty, right down to its meandering close-out, as though the group–and the world–have literally run out of places to wanna go and things to wanna do and whoevers to wanna do it with.
Else oblivion. An almost insanely pure ability to resist the obvious–the persistence in demanding that, contra Philip K. Dick, if you stop believing in reality, it will stop believing in you.
Reality still believes. The Mamas & the Papas are still the ones who recognized and sang about it, half-shouting, half-crooning, straight from the heart of the dying dream.
The world’s on fire, they sang.
We know, because we struck the match. they did not have to sing.
I listen to Rhino’s old 2-disc Warren Zevon anthology I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead with fair frequency. Who doesn’t want to drift off to sleep to the sounds of “Detox Mansion” or “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” or “I predict this motel will be standing until I pay my bill?”
I don’t know why it is, then, that I never appreciated his version of “Raspberry Beret” (cut with R.E.M. posing as Hindu Love Gods) before this week. I mean, I always liked it and I always shared a wry smile with the ten thousand others who have noted how much “Raspberry Beret,” a hit for Prince in 1985, sounded like Warren Zevon, circa 1976. But it never really stood out before.
Maybe that’s because I never realized what a perfect song it would have made for a nineteen-year-old Elvis, if he had been born two generation later, walked into a studio around 1990 (when Zevon’s version was released, though it was recorded in 1987) and got some off-the-wall producer to listen to him goofing off with it. And maybe I never realized that before because, if Elvis hadn’t been born in 1935, Prince and Warren Zevon would have been about as well known in 1985 (or 1990) as Arthur Crudup and Bill Monroe were in 1954.
The Revolution (you know, the one that’s always deemed inevitable once someone makes it happen) would have still been waiting. (Yes, yes, debate the validity of alternate universes amongst yourselves, but rest assured my anonymous sources are unimpeachable.)
Would we be better off in 2017 if somebody scrambled the time-line?
Excuse me while I venture forth to commune with the departed shade of Philip K. Dick….He keeps telling me he knows all about this stuff. He just can’t tell me whether I’ll face eternal damnation if I bring the drugs.
(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.