I’m learning. This is probably the most perverse album ever released by a major star. Dylan’s previous three albums had all produced Top 40 singles (as would his next).
Despite Harding selling well, it produced no hit singles (though Jimi Hendrix later took “All Along the Watchtower” for a ride up the charts with a Cover from God), and seems to have been conceived as some kind of throwback to the days when nobody could imagine Dylan having hits of his own. You could hear it as the same kind of spitball to his rock and roll audience as “going electric” had been to his folk audience.
I’m a sucker for Dylan’s Rock and Roll Voice, not as much for his Folkie Voice.
Maybe for that reason it took me years to hear this–and this last year for it to become a go to.
Or maybe the times they’ve just a’ changed.
9) Arthur BakerGive in to the Rhythm (1991)
Baker was a big name in the early days of the remix craze. Since I’ve never been into remixes, I’m not sure why or how I came to have this laying around for years. This is the first time I’ve listened to it in ages–maybe the third time ever. Mostly, I like it without loving it, a reaction I often have to music that was made more for dance-floors than headphones. I wonder, though, if a single side ever sunk in, whether it would unlock the key to the rest? As it stands, I’d rather listen to Madonna remixes, which are the only ones I’ve ever found revelatory.
8) Various ArtistsLouisiana Roots: The Jay Miller R&B Legacy (1998)
Jay Miller was an avowed segregationist who nonetheless ran an integrated studio throughout the early years of rock and roll in the Jim Crow South and recorded a number of classic r&b sides of which this is a generous selection. Like a lot of off-shoot projects that acquire a gut-bucket reputation based on the idea that relatively obscure music must be tougher than what reaches the mainstream, this one has more nuance and a lighter touch than you might expect. I can’t say much of it is transcendent but it’s consistently enjoyable and, given the predilections of Miller’s politics, a testimony to mankind’s thoroughgoing perversity. You’d never guess how he felt based on the sounds he made!
7) Harold Melvin and the Blue NotesIf You Don’t Know Me By Now: Best of (1995)
One of the great collections of 70s soul. They could probably sustain one twice as long, but, given the number of long (12″) cuts, this is still generous and a fully realized journey. Of course, Teddy Pendergrass is the main show, but the Blue Notes were also the recipient of some of Gamble and Huff’s most startling arrangements (I wrote about “Wake Up Everybody” here), including “I Miss You” which, in its full version is almost unbearable, coming as it did at the moment when Black America seemed within sight of achieving a level of integration that transcended mere law and politics. You can still hear that possibility whispering close here. Once in a while, you can hear it shouting…and wonder just how it was we missed out on the Promised Land and came up with this unholy mess instead.
6) John LennonLennon Legend: The Very Best of (1997)
Lennon’s first two solo albums stand on their own and his box set isn’t a slog. The album released just before his death remains hard to hear through the haze of murder and grief it seemed designed to disperse. Hence, when I want to hear him without the Beatles, this is usually where I go. It doesn’t all work. As agitprop “Imagine” gets by on its melody (and the fact Lennon had a sense of humor about how far he was from living out its ideals), but his voice is just about all that redeems “Instant Karma” or “Cold Turkey.”
That aside, this is still a fine document of a man caught out of time. Lennon was the Beatle who most believed in all that “All You Need Is Love” stuff. It’s not surprising that he found the 70s a nasty shock, or that–in interviews and on record–he kept reaching back to something he could never quite find. It’s also not a surprise that, with “Nobody Told Me,” a posthumous hit that was his strongest side in years, he seemed to realize he would never find what he was looking for, even if he kept a phalanx of bodyguards and lived to be a hundred.
5) Various ArtistsBrown Eyed Soul: Vols. 1-3 (1997)
I’m counting these as a single entry, because that’s how I listen to this set, one of Rhino’s best, and that’s how I hear it. As a single experience.
“The Sound of East L.A.” is the music Chicano audiences listened to from the late fifties to the early seventies and someone took care in the sequencing and programming for each volume here to reflect an experience that’s of a piece–and is only enhanced when you listen them all over the course of an afternoon or evening or (like me) in the early a.m. How close it is the actual listening experience of those who lived in those communities in the time covered I can’t say (though I haven’t heard anyone complain). But the mix is beguiling–heavy on off-key doo wop, light soul (think Brenton Wood), garage bands (think Cannibal and the Headhunters and Thee Midniters, both local heroes) and slow-groove funk (think the mellow side of War)–and if it catches you in the right mood, you can find yourself wanting to be part of any world that would respond to this music as though it were the key of life.
Well worth tracking down for those who still think about acquiring music in some form more permanent than a microchip.
Pick to Click: “The Town I Live In” where Thee Midniters make like a west coast Rascals…and, for those three minutes at least, concede nothing.
4) Brenda LeeI’m in the Mood for Love: Classic Ballads (1998)
To say Brenda is underrepresented in the CD era is to concede that the sun rises in the east. This collection barely scratches the surface of her greatness as a ballad singer. But it’s what we have, and, to quote Spencer Tracy “what’s there is cherce.” It’s highlighted by killer original versions of “The Crying Game” and “Always on My Mind” and includes cuts from throughout the sixties, arranged out of sequence so that you can’t miss how centered her style was–how much 1968 was connected to 1960 in her voice if nowhere else. A thousand nuances, then, and always unmistakably her. It’s a perfect album and my only complaint is there could and should be another dozen like it.
3) Robert JohnsonThe Complete Recordings: Centennial Collection (2011)
The essence of Robert Johnson at this distance is how much his voice calls into question whether the arrow of defeat and humiliated pride that’s been driven deep in the heart of Black America can ever finally be withdrawn.
And if the question is left only to his voice, the answer will always be no.
That’s as true on a supposed novelty number like “They’re Red Hot” as it is on “Hellhound on My Trail” or “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,” which even the nonbelievers can’t pretend are jokes.
2) Various ArtistsThe Disco Box (1999)
A fine overview that isn’t quite what it might have been. Disco can sustain four CDs and then some as a listening experience (as well as a dancing one). But the compilers at Rhino were always historically minded, so a pedestrian cut like Carol Douglas’s “Doctor’s Orders” is bound to take precedence over records that were real grabbers simply because it was a touchstone of the form’s early days and a big hit. There’s a bit more of that here than I’d prefer as there’s no reason for a box of this significance to have any filler.
Even so, it sustains almost in spite of itself. The form was always more than its critics acknowledged so a run of soft spots (usually chant records or metronomic “mood” instrumentals) is inevitably followed by a commensurate handful of irresistible highs. And, often as not, the chant records are as great as “Keep it Comin’ Love” and the instrumentals are as non-metronomic as “Fifth of Beethoven.” Besides, with due respect to Barry White* and the white disco of “Dancing Queen” and “December 1963” (all absent here) and short-shrifting the Bee Gees (maybe understandable given they’re not exactly lacking appreciation elsewhere, including from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame which has ignored, say, Barry White), the form’s very greatest vocals are here: Vicki Sue Robinson on “Turn the Beat Around,” Candi Staton on “Young Hearts Run Free,” Jimmy Ellis of the Traamps on “Disco Inferno” and Evelyn “Champagne” King on “Shame,” which in its 12″ version, (not presented here–another complaint is they always settled for the single) calls out the same questions Robert Johnson does…and gives back the same responses.
Outside his two big hits, “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride” Edgar’s reach mostly exceeded his grasp. The fine bands he assembled tended to be stronger than his writing–just not quite strong enough to overcome the lack of inspiration in Winter’s own lyrics and singing (Dan Hartman was another story).
Still, he and his group had an interesting niche–a rare white funk band who retained a foothold in the burgeoning concept of Classic Rock.
And kudos to the programmer.
You could do a lot worse than close down a “last ten” with this. Speaking of arrangements….
Til next time!
*NOTE: White is represented as an orchestra leader, but not as a vocalist.
Blues isn’t really a narrow form. Sometimes it can seem that way, but any proper definition of blues singing would, for instance include not just the likes of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and Bessie Smith, but Louis Armstrong, Hank and Lefty, Haggard and Jones, Ronnie Van Zant, Teddy Pendergrass and Marvin Gaye, Patty Loveless, Otis Redding, sixties’ era Charlie Rich, Percy Sledge, not to mention Jimmy Rodgers and Elvis. My own favorite unlikely blues LP is the soundtrack to Young Man With a Horn, a collaboration between Harry James and Doris Day which is as It’s-Always-3:00 A.M.-in-the-Dark-Night-of-the-Soul as any record you can name even if you go way further than I’m going here and drill down deeper than the top of your head.
That being said, any collection from the Bear Family titled The Roots of it All: Acoustic Blues is bound to be as thin as a hatpin stylistically. When the set runs to four 2-disc volumes that contain about twelve hours of music, you might think it would slog a bit.
I didn’t find it so.
I didn’t find it so, even though the set wasn’t quite what I thought I was getting when I picked it up cheap a while back. Having only perused the set list on the first two volumes to see what I was getting into, I assumed “the roots of it all” meant sticking to the narrow form’s heyday of the twenties through the mid-forties after which even the Delta moved to the city and electric guitars took center stage. Boy was I wrong.
Turned out the eight discs are dedicated to the decades stretching from the twenties to the nineties, with each decade treated in roughly equal measure.
And here’s the really amazing thing. Except for a small stretch at the end of disc seven, when Taj Mahal’s version of “Fishing Blues” (not as warm or engaging as the Lovin’ Spoonful’s light-electric version from back in the sixties) ushers in a stretch of blues academia that isn’t entirely ushered out until Keb Mo’s “You Can Love Yourself” (a first cousin of Rick Nelson’s “Garden Party” speaking of unlikely blues) starts a strong closing run nine cuts later, it never, ever flags.
There are too many highlights to mention. If you like classic blues, you should just track down the sets and carve out some time and space to fully engage. I found the scariest stuff on Volume 3, which had versions of Muddy’s “Feel Like Going Home” and Skip James’ “Sickbed Blues” I hadn’t heard before plus a live version of John Lee Hooker’s “Tupelo” from his appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1960, whence the “no electricity” rule was evidently still in full force!
So I was going to hook you up with that, at least, (and I will), but when I went looking, I also found this…
..and was reminded that, until Spike Lee and Chuck D came along, it was almost never the artists who said stupid stuff about Elvis.
And, in case you think the world was ever simple, here’s the version from 1960….
,…with Hooker being accompanied by Spike’s dad on acoustic bass.
That’s just in case you ever wondered whether Spike actually has good reason to know better.
Listen to just about any musical genius who lived ninety miles an hour and found death before it could find them and it’s easy to hear them chasing what they caught.
It’s a long list: Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Charlie Parker, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon, Kurt Cobain. All carried deep desperation or (assuming the qualities can ever be disentangled) fatalism in their bones. They couldn’t have kept the devil’s laughter from being an essential part of how they sang or played if they had wanted to…which they wouldn’t have.
Listening to seven hours of Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective this week, four of them on the annual Florida-Alabama-Georgia loop that carries me past my mother’s graveside, what I heard was a man who had absorbed and mastered everything from Steve Cropper-style studio concision to deep, biting blues to epic guitar god soloing to do Clapton or Hendrix proud…and not only sounded like his own man on every note, but like he had all the time in the world.
He might have been the only live-fast-die-young icon who actually died on a motorcycle, but unlike everybody else I just listed, it’s easy to hear any piece of music he ever touched, from lightest brush…
to firm embrace…
…and imagine him living another fifty years if he had only lived another day.
When I make that annual pilgrimage in the future, I won’t have to worry anymore about which music to ride along with.
(NOTE: This is getting to be more like “vocalist of the six months”….It’s been a busy year on a lot of fronts and I’m just getting back in the blogging swing so I hope to start picking up the pace, here and elsewhere. Meanwhile….This is a sequel to the piece I posted here.)
I suspect every white boy who was born around 1960 (like I was) and grew up in the South (like I did) has at least one Lynyrd Skynyrd story.
Most of us have a lot more than one. Sort of a routine litany.
Stories like mine.
There’s the “Come to think of it John, I never have seen you drunk on your ass,” story and the “You better not let any of those Alabama boys hear you say that” story and the high school talent show story and the “girls cried when Elvis died and boys cried when Ronnie died” story (now there’s one common to all!) and the speakers blasting “Sweet Home Alabama” in the softball field parking lot story and the “My second husband never listened to nothin’ but country and Lynyrd Skynyrd” story and probably a few others I’m not calling to mind just now.
But I’ll leave those aside and let one story suffice.
It’s the summer of 1979 and I’m working in the girls’ camp at the Southern Baptist Convention Center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina. Nice social experience, dreary job. There were five of us on that particular assignment (all college boys), plus two camp cooks.
The cooks were brothers–Texas born and raised, worldly, early thirties, mostly-reformed rowdies, a year or two apart in age. The older one was a Type B, cool, calm, collected. The younger was a Type A, charming, witty, talkative, possessed of a temper which he worked hard at keeping in check. (The one day he lost it, he took a swing at his brother, missed, then let go an animal yell and ran out the door. He came back about five minutes later, soaking wet. He had jumped in the lake where the campers took canoeing lessons, shirt, shoes and all, as we used to say. He apologized all around. Seemed to have gotten it out of his system. Us younger lads–when we got over our mild shock–sort of looked at each other and nodded rather sagely. No word needed to be spoken. He was clearly what we had suspected all along–even before we knew he and his brother had played in rock bands and once opened for the Animals in front of ten thousand people somewhere in Texas. He was, undoubtedly, a product of The Sixties!)
Type A going off and Type B’s modest reaction–“He gets a little belligerent some times but he’ll be alright”–were pretty definitive elements of their respective characters.
But what really defined them was that they had been intimates of Lynyrd Skynyrd–part of the inner circle via their friendship with Skynyrd’s last drummer, Artimus Pyle. The only way they could have been any cooler was if, say, one of them (Type B, naturally) had been asked to be the road manager of the band’s next-to-last tour–the one right before the one that ended in a plane crash that killed Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, backup singer Cassie Gaines.
Naturally, we all wanted to know why Type B didn’t take the gig.
There were two simple reasons.
Reason One was that his daughter had just been born and he wanted to spend time with her.
Reason Two was that he was told one of his main duties would be keeping Ronnie out of fights.
The way he told it, it was pretty clear Reason Two would have been enough, if Reason One hadn’t existed.
If he had been around enough to be asked to be their road manager, he had certainly been around enough to know that–at least some of the time–Ronnie Van Zant was who we all thought he was.
* * * *
When Lynyrd Skynyrd released their first album in 1973 (Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd‘), Ronnie Van Zant became an instant, virtually official, representative of a part of the population which had been judged by the content of its character for at least a century before Martin Luther King said we all should be and been found permanently wanting by everyone but themselves.
Hillbilly, Redneck, Cracker, White Trash. Hard to find an honorific in there.
And that was just the neighbors talking.
By the time Van Zant died in a plane crash four years later, he and his band had managed to demonstrate just how difficult such stereotypes are to shake. Deepen them, shred them, laugh at them, live for them, die for them and still, your most devoted fans and your bitterest detractors will insist on thrusting them right back on you.
When the music was playing, though, Skynyrd transcended such contradictions again and again. Then and now.
Ronnie himself was the essential reason for the transcendence. And his singing–Chuck Berry’s sly intonations riding in, around, over and under the moral undertow of a Delta man, with the mythic weight resting now on the former, now on the latter, often within the context of a single line–was the reason within the reason.
Not to say that the whole package wasn’t definitive. We live now in an age when the likes of the Who or Led Zeppelin are routinely going around accepting things like Kennedy Center Honors. If Elvis Presley, or even Hank Williams, had lived long enough, it’s not hard to imagine them racking up similar signifiers of middle-brow acceptance.
I can even imagine a future where “hard-core” rappers get the same treatments. Ice Cube maybe. Or Chuck D.
And why not? Heck, George Jones made it that far, whiskey bones and all.
You can be sure, though, that if that airplane had somehow stayed in the air, no such accolades would have ever been in the cards for Ronnie Van Zant. Not even if he had tried.
Which he wouldn’t have.
* * * *
Well, it’s always courting danger to ponder alternative universes, but, all in all, I’d say at least a few assumptions are safe.
First off, if your plane goes down the week you are releasing an album where you sing lines like “you won’t find me in an old folks home” and “whiskey bottles, brand new cars, oak tree you’re in my way,” and you are fond of telling anyone who will listen that you won’t see thirty, then a plane falling or not falling hardly means the fate you are courting won’t find you some other way.
Of course a lot of so-called punks, from Pete “Hope-I-Die-Before-I-Get-Old” Townshend on down, used to brag about being on the same sort of journey, and some still do. Some even follow through. But none of them were/are really philosophical (or any way off-hand) about it. Their brag came from a place Van Zant never thought of visiting. He didn’t say he wanted to die before he got old, just that he would–big difference, and, if you don’t want to admit it, wait til the next world comes and you can be sure that if the Void don’t care to explain it to you, then either John Calvin or Lucifer will be waiting to step up for a word with you please.
So much for “first off.”
Second off–and more significant–is that Van Zant grew up in my world.
Just the other side of the tracks I was just this side of, maybe–but my world all the same.
And I know this much.
You can run away from it. You can never really leave it.
It was a world where everybody had a more than sneaking suspicion that the Devil decides–and, if everybody carries certain sneaking suspicions around with them every single minute of every single day, then the habits of suspicion (and the beliefs those habits both spring from and reinforce) are bound to linger.
You can run away from all of that. Sure you can. Plenty have.
But you can never really leave it all the way behind.
Ronnie was definitive–definitively “us” even when “us” was me, who never did get drunk on his ass and learned to turn the other cheek when he was nine–because he never tried to leave anything behind–never once tried to run away from who he was, even though he knew what he was up against.
He had liberal views but none of the Liberal’s version of arrogance (condescension). And, lacking bluster (the Conservative’s version of same), he had no place to hide away.
So he was never going to be “home.”
Maybe that was why home worried him so much–became the source of his two great themes.
Home as haven. Home as trap.
In an age when nihilism was already running rampant everywhere except the middle of the road (which meant it wouldn’t be long before it was there, too–1980 to be exact), he clearly expected to pay for his sins.
Pay he did, ultimately.
Here’s what else he managed along the way.
* * * *
In a little over four years, between 1973 and 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded five studio albums plus an epic live double and another album’s worth of out-takes and demos.
All were worthwhile, most were great. That string of rapid-fire greatness made them virtually the last mainstream rock and roll artists to work at such a white-hot pace while sustaining both a creative vision and a wide audience. The difference between their dozen or so radio staples–a number matched or exceeded by only a handful of bands in any form but especially in the “classic rock” format, where only Led Zeppelin (the Beatles of the form) produced so many in such a short span–and whatever you think their worst side is, was minuscule. The vision could seem narrow, no doubt.
But once you stepped inside it–once you got past the cracker facade–it was bottomless.
They set the parameters of that vision, and primed the expectations of their core audience, on the first two tracks of their first official release (Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd). “I Ain’t the One” was hard rock at its slyest (and hardest). “Tuesday’s Gone” was a wistful ballad, nearly as mythic as it was mournful and mysterious. Plenty of fine bands have lived on much narrower turf for decades. Skynyrd would be pushing and shifting and re-setting their turf–digging ever deeper–until almost literally the day they went down (in a plane Aerosmith had refused to fly in) and Ronnie’s death ended the band’s meaningful existence as anything other than a cash cow being milked for the very qualities–cheap nostalgia, boogie-for-its-own-sake–he had always disdained.
That urgency–the sense of constant movement within what seemed, on the surface of the very loud, often spine-rattling noise, to be such obvious restrictions–sprang almost entirely from Van Zant’s genius as a writer, bandleader and, especially, vocalist.
* * * *
The writing part was, by all accounts, pretty mystical itself. Van Zant’s band-mates have described composing sessions as often amounting to them working up a riff while Ronnie wandered down by the lake and, at some point when they were getting on toward an arrangement, he would walk in and have the lyric in his head, ready to go. Working, in other words, the way Quincy Jones has suggested is more typical of jazz musicians and rappers, though, if you substitute arrangements for words, and the parking lot for a lake, it also sounds like a typical Elvis session.
There’s some significance to that, I think.
There’s a point at which this sort of “process” becomes well known and can be self-consciously imitated. In jazz, this had probably happened by the mid-sixties or so. In rock, it had certainly happened by the late seventies. In rap, maybe a decade later.
It might not be a coincidence that stories of loosely run sessions are found most frequently when the musicians spring from America’s two traditionally despised demographics–blacks and poor Southern whites–or from someone who is specifically trying to imitate them.
These are also the demographics where concepts like the posse, the gang, the crew, the extended family (which might be based on blood relations or simply communal associations, generally developed no later than high school), take their strongest hold. Among these two groups, that hold tends to trump everything that tries to break it–including fame, fortune and common sense.
That’s probably because they are the two groups who are most purely and deeply defined by a physical and psychic space they are bound to defend, generation after generation, in order to retain any cultural identity at all.
Better a cultural identity that catches you in a trap, the reasoning goes, than none at all.
Once an “out” group accepts that it can never really be “in,” then “we are who we are” tends to be the most reliable fallback position. Once the acceptance becomes truly ingrained, then you don’t even need to fall back, because the wall is something you learn to keep your back against to begin with.
Out of that, what are you going to get except the far edges of the blues, honky tonk, rockabilly, gangsta rap and, for the purposes of this particular discussion, Southern Rock?
And inside each of those concepts (yeah, they’re musical forms, too, but, at their furthest reach, never just that) you get an occasional genius.
Ronnie Van Zant ended up being the principal genius of Southern Rock in part because his singing brought so many vital elements of those other concepts together in one place to a degree that was matched by very few others–all of whom (Bessie Smith, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Merle Haggard, James Brown, Al Green) have received far more accolades (not only from places like the Kennedy Center…and not only because most of them lived a lot longer).
That’s how it is with genius and concepts.
The concepts you can predict. The genius not so much.
It goes its own way.
* * * *
Of course, as with all the others I mentioned, hanging a label on Ronnie Van Zant and his great band is a bit of a trap in itself. The labels end up being technically correct and fundamentally ridiculous in the manner of calling Romeo and Juliet a teen romance or The Searchers a western or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn an especially fine example of Southwest Humor.
Some artists are just born to turn the cliches of form and formula on their heads and, inevitably, to put new ones in their place.
The way Van Zant went about practicing his particular acts of subversion was always rooted in a voice that was a perfect match for his lyrics–lyrics that, like the now-lilting, now-growling, now-shouting voice, held edges that were forever cutting both ways. So “Lord knows I can’t change,” (from “Freebird,” the career-defining closing track from their first LP) seems almost mock-ably straightforward until you actually listen to it being sung, after which it becomes impossible to tell the difference between the brag it so obviously seems to be on its face and the somewhat (though only somewhat) bitter confession of loneliness and isolation it surely is underneath. And that’s before you get to the next album’s second cut, “I Need You,” which plays like a sequel that promises everything “Freebird” denied, unless, of course, it’s denying everything “Freebird” promised.
And all of that is before you even get around to singing, you know, “In Birmingham they love the governor–boo, boo, boo,” and having the folks who love you without reservation completely agree with the folks who hate you the same way that you must be a big fan of “the governor.”
So it goes
One thing you learn, hanging out in Calvinist air–love and hate never do much nuanced listening.
So what can a genuinely poor boy do?
Become the only white blues singer whose voice carried no hint of either strain or homage? Claim the music in the off-handed way that a dozen or more singers leading equally fine blues-based bands–singers as great as Gregg Allman or as committed as Eric Clapton, fronting bands as great as the Allman Brothers or Cream–could only dream about? Cry for home every time you hit the road and cry for the road every time you come home? Maybe at the very same time make it sound like you never cried in your life? Make it sound like you’ve lived every single moment in the moment and never regretted a thing….unless it’s every single moment you weren’t thinking about the past or the future?
Celebrate with warnings?
Switch sides in the middle of a song?
Make it sound like “oak tree you’re in my way,” is you talking back to somebody (some preacher’s kid maybe) who is trying to make you see the error of your ways and then make it sound like “one hell of a price for you to get your kicks,” is you talking to somebody you are tying to save–somebody who may or may not be your own self?
Well, you could do all that. If you happened to be one poor boy in particular.
It’s not something that could have been easily predicted. With “art” you only know what’s possible once somebody reaches the limits.
We know what a “western” can be because John Ford existed. That’s true whether you like John Ford or not. We know what “country blues” can be because Robert Johnson existed. Ditto and so on and so forth.
We know what a poor white boy can actually do with what he himself called “the black man’s blues” because Ronnie Van Zant existed.
And so on and so forth.
* * * *
He couldn’t have come from anywhere else. God knows we know, because we know how many others–from here, there and everywhere–have tried.
He couldn’t have come from anywhere except the only part of White America which never expects to assimilate and the only part that knows that whether they just don’t want to or just don’t think it’s possible isn’t a secret they are likely to share even if they come to some conclusion about it themselves.
I don’t know whether Ronnie Van Zant came to any conclusions or not and I won’t pretend I could have found out by asking him in some parallel universe where he did live to see thirty and I used my contacts with the camp cook who almost managed one of his tours to meet him somehow. I doubt his ever-supple management of his own duality–the relationship that had to exist between man and persona that was probably necessary for him to get as far as he did, to claim any audience at all in his own moment or have any claim on the future he knew he wasn’t going to live to see–would have been set aside for my sake.
You live with your back to the wall and–live or die–you give up certain things to gain others. You can’t sing the blues the way Ronnie Van Zant did–the epic, eternal way–and retain your ability to let down your mask so you can explain things to the preacher’s kid.
Or live to see thirty.
* * * *
The manner and timing of Ronnie Van Zant’s death worked to ensure that the element of caricature which clung to him in life–clung no matter how diligently he tried to shed it, how deftly he put it to use as necessary camouflage–clung ever so much tighter once he wasn’t around to be diligent and deft and nuanced about it.
You want a single, reliable watchword for the deep, abiding contempt that college radio, or hip commentary, or thousand-dollar-a-plate fund-raising dinner attendees for either political party or just plain old Liberals-Who-Aren’t feel for the great unwashed?
“Lynyrd-Skynyrd” is all you need.
You need a similar word for the “nostalgia” of second husbands, or Conservatives-Who-Aren’t, or for anyone who thinks they’ve found comfort for the world view that truly believes this world would be a better place if, for starters, black people and “pencil pushers” just learned to stay in theirs?
Say the same.
I suspect no amount of asking people to listen closer will ever change this.
The need to be better than someone else is deeper than any ocean and, sometimes, being the voice who warns ignorance against itself and turns every easy assumption on its head doesn’t mean you are going to reap any easy reward.
Sometimes it just means there is only going to be one of you.
And, sometimes, being the only one means there is no safe haven, even in death.
So forget the “punks.”
If you really want to know what it’s like to never quite fit in–and to know you never will–then Ronnie Van Zant’s your man.
Rest in peace if you can, brother.
Rest in peace if you somehow found a place where they’ll let you.
Explanations below, but, for starters, a salute to the late Ms. Robinson, who died of cancer in 2000 at the age of forty-five (complete with a Paul Williams intro that demonstrates just how far Show Biz hadn’t come while the culture was moving at light speed):
Now to the main point:
A few days ago, Terry Teachout posted a link to his current Wall street Journal column in which he opines on the “limits” of popular art. You can read the whole thing here but the gist is about what you would expect from a cultural conservative and he’s certainly not entirely wrong.
But it’s funny that no one ever seems to say much about the limits of High Art. I mean, one reason so-called popular art has taken up so much space in the Post-War era is that High Art has been failing so miserably.
And, of course, I spend a lot of time around here arguing that the point of “culture” at any level called “art” is to engage. That means history, politics, sex, religion, love, hate, war, poverty and so on and so on and skooby-dooby-doo.
See, there’s Popular Art giving me a voice. Engaging.
Believe me, I’d be very happy if what passes for High Art in the modern age managed to do the same.
Now, I didn’t want to stack the deck, so rather than respond to the ideas in Teachout’s essay by specifically seeking the safest available high ground (something like the Rolling Stones in 1969, or Robert Johnson in 1937, or Raymond Chandler in 1952, the first and last of those being things Teachout has evinced a limited understanding of in the past which suggests he probably hasn’t quite thought this thing all the way through) I decided I would just weigh in on the next thing that happened to pop up in the course of my day…see how far that would take me.
So, from a few nights ago, when the “next thing” happened to be a mix disc I had just assembled as a copy of an old mix tape (Volume Fourteen of a twenty volume set, and, please, believe me when I say, social relevance was the furthest thing from my mind at the point of original assembly, unless “social relevance” means imagining just how far my Theory of Shindig and Hullabaloo Dance could stretch), here goes (original recording dates in parens):
Soul Survivors “Expressway to Your Heart” (1967)–Epochal black producers (Gamble and Huff) have their first hit guiding a white group imitating a white group imitating a black group while Philly International was still a gleam in somebody’s eye.
Young Rascals “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” (1965)–The specific group the Soul Survivors were imitating. They happened to be white boys signed to a record label owned by white men who specialized in selling black music to, first, Black America and, later, White America as well, but weren’t above selling white acts to black people or white acts to white people if they could smell a profit. Would have made Beethoven’s head spin, I tell you, but they made it look easy.
Candi Staton “Young Hearts Run Free” (1976)–An exemplar of one of mid-period disco’s deeply mixed messages. These days, slick magazines are full of articles with titles like “Can Women Really Have It All.” Then as now, the answer was Yes and No. Sorry but I’d rather listen to Ms. Staton work out the ambiguities than read what our modern Platos have to say on the subject.
Wilson Pickett “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” (1970)–A black man, who sounds like he knows he’s caught in a trap, begs–and begs, and begs–for a black woman not to leave him at the first historical moment when it was possible for her to even think about doing so.
Abba “SOS” (1974)–Swedish woman sings “I tried to reach for you but you had closed your mind” back to the man who wrote the lines for her to sing. He happened to also be her husband at the time. No, really.
John Waite “Missing You” (1984)–Okay, this is just a nice, pop-obsessive record about pretending not to miss someone who kicked your heart to pieces and who you would take back in a second if they would have you. Nothing High Art couldn’t handle in other words.
Cher “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” (1971)–A major star, singing in the voice of one who never got the chance, spits back at everyone who ever spit on her.
Cher “Half Breed” (1973)–Ditto. Only more so.
Styx “Too Much Time on My Hands” (1981)–I’m actually not sure what this is about. Possibly unemployment but I’m not gonna stake my reputation on it.
Roxette “The Look” (1988)–Pure confection. No discernible higher meaning except it was the-best-Prince-record-made-by-somebody-other-than-Prince, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.
The Who “Who Are You” (1977)–English rockers lament/celebrate their escape from the lives the system had planned for them. Self-destruction caught up with the drummer shortly thereafter. Whether this record would still sound like it’s chasing him if he’d somehow never been caught is one of those nice existential questions that should be mulled in Philosophy 101 classes everywhere….but probably isn’t.
AC/DC “Get It Hot” (1979)–A salute to rock and roll. Good topic. Well played.
Heart “Straight On” (1978)–An epic blues played, sung, conceived and executed by seventies-era white people from the Pacific Northwest (who many sardonics of ill repute believe are the whitest people who have ever lived so go ahead and have your snicker) and also a late-feminist sequel to the Shangri-Las’ proto-feminist “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” that demonstrates just how far the earth had turned in a decade. If there’s been a novel or play that did as much, I missed it. If I happen to run into one somewhere, I bet I’ll have the bring up the fact that it doesn’t get the job completely done in four minutes.
Randy Newman “I Love LA” (1982)–Love and mockery, joined at the hip and permanently reinforcing each other.
Randy Newman “It’s Money That Matters” (1988)–The History of America in the New Gilded Age. (The ethics of which were so thoroughly and seductively appalling/appealing that, unlike the first Gilded Age, they have survived the inevitable economic bust. More than one in fact. Goodbye us, in other words. Thanks Randy!)
Jackie Wilson “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” (1967)–A call-and-response Top Ten hit and permanent radio staple that perfectly captures the last historical moment when it seemed possible for the Civil Rights movement to become a lasting social triumph as opposed to a purely legalistic one.
Steve Miller Band (1976) “RockN’ Me”–A rocker’s ode…whether to groupies or to the One Left at Home, I’ve never been quite certain.
Huey Lewis and the News (1983) “Heart of Rock and Roll”–A promise that rock and roll would keep on a goin’. Naturally it was already a bit ill, though a few years from being terminal. The song works because it is completely devoid of irony, self-awareness or any other complicating factor. Well that plus it has a good beat and you can dance to it.
Standells “Dirty Water” (1965)–The eternal, existential struggle between Puritanism and its discontents, distilled to one hundred and sixty-eight perfect seconds.
Blues Magoos “We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet” (1966)–“Nothing can hold us, nothing can keep us down.” I bet High Art never manages to go anywhere that line doesn’t when it finally does work up its nerve and get around to explaining either the successes or the failures of “the Sixties.”
Tommy Tutone “867-5309/Jenny” (1981)–Stalker pleads with the Object of his Affection not to change her phone number. In other words, 7,000 guest shots on the Law and Order franchise, explained well ahead of time.
The Jacksons “Enjoy Yourself” (1976)–Or, as the full line goes, “Enjoy yourself, with me…You better enjoy yourself.” Question for the class: Whose enjoyment is more important? His or hers? Hey, that’s Michael on the lead. Does that make it any clearer? Or the “better” any more disturbing?
Vicki Sue Robinson “Turn the Beat Around” 12-inch Version (1976)–Broadway chanteuse speaks in tongues over a History of Poly-rhythms so complete it proves conclusively the inherent funkiness of the flute. In direct response to Terry’s essay, I consider this aiming very high indeed. (And just as an aside, I’ve never quite been able to forgive Gloria Estefan for later deciphering the lyrics. And I’ve really, really tried. And just as another aside: I once heard a music critic explain the superiority of seventies music over sixties music–and express complete contempt for anyone who might have even thought of disagreeing with him–by using the name of this record, plus the words “Come on!” as his entire argument. As an unabashed lover of the music of both decades, I’m an agnostic in that particular debate, but I’ll just say I did know what he meant.)
Ohio Players “FOPP” (1975)– “The rich can Fopp and, uh, so can the po’, you can Fopp until your ninety-fo’” Hey, it took a while (decades or centuries depending on when you prefer to start counting), but when Democracy finally started producing Manifestos like this, the Soviets were basically toast, regardless of who we elected President.
Rick James “Superfreak Pt 1″ (1981)–The groupie as Goddess. No ambiguity about this one.
The Doobie Brothers “China Grove” (1973)–Flannery O’Connor weirdness with a slightly better sense of rhythm and no room for the abiding contempt of the human species that intellectuals of all stripes seem to find so comforting.
Of course, each of these responses amounts to only one of several possible responses. No point in making High Art’s head spin trying to keep up.
BTW: High Art, I feel like I should give you a hug. You lost this round, but a week earlier and you might have come up against Volume Twelve. Bad, that. Would have meant dealing with “Kung Fu Fighting” and “Brother Louie.”
Sam Cooke (b. 1931–Clarksdale, moved Chicago 1933)
Elvis Presley (b. 1935–Tupelo, moved Memphis 1948)
In a space of 45 years, one of the least populated, least affluent, least educated regions in the United States (or, for that matter, the history of the industrialized world)–a region the most talented citizens were evidently desparate to leave (hence the traces here of the Memphis/St. Louis/Chicago diasporas which would be even more pronounced if we extended the trend to adulthood and cross-indexed it with opportunity)–produced about eighty percent of the world’s most important blues performers, the century’s greatest American novelist (Faulkner), the century’s greatest American playwright (Williams), the “father of country music” (Rodgers), the “man who invented soul” (Cooke), the “king of rock ’n’ roll” (Presley) and the auteur of the world’s most famous backbeat (Diddley).
I’m not the person to do it, but somebody really should write a book that explains why this was–or was not–a statisical fluke.