THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Spring 2020, Countdown)

10) The Prisonaires, Five Beats Behind Bars (1979)

The Prisonaires assembled in the Tennessee State Pen in the early 50’s. Their leader, Johnny Bragg, was a decade into his sentence after being convicted on six counts of rape at the age of seventeen. “Just Walking in the Rain,” a song the illiterate Bragg composed and gave a co-credit to a fellow inmate for transcribing the lyric, found its way to Sun Records and Sam Phillips after a local radio producer sent a tape of a show Bragg and his prison vocal group had performed in gaol. To hear the song now is to be caught between the last rock and the last hard place: Is this the pure expression of the soul of a rapist, or the spirit of Jim Crow being brought to its knees? The question haunts, because Bragg’s vocal is probably the most delicate ever recorded. Let out of prison on the strength of his musical ability and success, he was soon thrown back in for being caught riding in a car with a white woman: A violation of parole and never mind that she was his wife. Here’s the kicker, though. The whole thing is up to that standard, which leaves us with another question: If he’d never been in prison, would Johnny Bragg be as well known as Clyde McPhatter or never heard from at all?

9) Steely Dan Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972)

To be honest I’ve never been able to attend any of their other albums all the way through. This was one of the great debuts, though, and everything they would ever be.

You could even argue that everything they would ever be was in the first two sides, which were only “Do It Again” (a huge hit) and “Dirty Work” a non-single which has never been off the radio, whether because or in spite of vocalist-for-hire David Palmer coming as close to the spirit of Johnny Bragg as any white man who never saw the inside of a jail cell could is another question to keep you up nights while you’re trying to figure out what the crit-illuminati saw in the rest of the story.

8) Various ArtistsEasy Rider Soundtrack(1969)

If I’m being honest, I prefer listening to the soundtrack, which I’ve done three or four times, to watching the movie, which I’ve done once.

If I’m being further honest, it’s really too bad the Band’s version of “The Weight” couldn’t be used. If they had to go with Smith, they should have just put their bombastic hit version of “Baby It’s You” in the movie itself (and no, I have no idea if they had even recorded it yet). Worth all the meandering to hear Roger McGuinn close down the proceedings–and the 60’s–by reading Dylan and a version of his own self-composed title track that adds depth and nuance to the great version he did with the Byrds for their Ballad of Easy Rider LP, which is way better than either this or the movie.

7) Fairport Convention Fairport Chronicles(1976)

From 1968 to 1972, from whence the music here is drawn, Fairport and its off-shoots (Fotheringay, The Bunch) made music to equal anyone alive and this is the best of it, brilliantly programmed and sturdier than time, Stonehenge or the digital recording industry which never caught up with it. Richard Thompson was the stable genius, Sandy Denny the mercurial, self-destructive one, and for a time, they held the center of Britain’s best-ever collective of folkish musicians. It all went the way of dusty death, of course, but nothing’s ever beaten it and no CD comp comes close.

6) The El Dorados Low Mileage – High Octane: Their Greatest Recordings (1984)

Of all the bottomless rock ‘n’ roll genres, doo wop is the deepest. The El Dorados were one of the hundred or so 50’s era vocal groups that managed a hit (“At My Front Door”) among the more than ten thousand who made a record and God knows how many who tried. I’ve got a few dozen comps by the style’s “one hit wonders”….and every one of them is magnificent. Is it an accident that Black America’s tendency to ruthlessly compete against itself (on the way to competing with the world) has produced so much fine culture, and that the self-defeating tendencies of ruthlessness have forced so much of it to remain in the shadows? I don’t know…but I’ll never get tired of trying to figure it out.

5) The Clash London Calling (1979)

Did anyone else ever make a double LP where every song rode a killer riff? I don’t just mean a catchy riff, like Tusk or the White Album, but a killer riff?

If somebody did, please let me know. I mean even Exile on  Main Street lets up for a song or two and Prince, well he would always start noodling after a while when you gave him that much space.

Not this. This keeps punching from beginning to end and also flows like water. For that, I can forgive the politics being a tad naive, even for 1979. Wish I could feel that way again, so this wouldn’t carry the weight of a lost time and it wouldn’t give me a sense of peace it was never mean to convey. But so it goes.

4) Joe Tex I Gotcha (1972)

Yeah, Joe Tex, who was he anyway. He’d been making records since the 50’s, had a string of hits since the mid-60’s and in 1972, this got lost. Christgau gave it a B- (and didn’t grade the next item here at all). I’m not sure anybody else mentioned it at all. Too bad. Shame on them. The man who helped invent Southern Soul and get it on the charts was still going strong. This was as good as anything released in it’s year. If Otis Redding or Al  Green had done it, it would have been slavered over. But then, the white boy illuminati never did have room for more than one black southern male genius at a time. Heck, if Otis hadn’t died, I bet even Al would have been put on hold. You know that’s how it was, because this is as good as Al Green.

3) Joe Tex From the Roots Came the Rapper (1972)

So is this, which came out the same year, and without a big single (like I Gothca‘s title track), got even less attention.

Interesting that Rap became the dominant musical form of a subsequent age without ever challenging the limits of what Tex did in the early 70’s. The only people who really responded to his mix of country, soul, R&B, pop crooning and high comedy were record buyers. Plus maybe the black women he spent his career mocking, celebrating and humanizing by turns. Nobody ever got to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame doing that. If somebody ever does, it will be this guy.

2) Dion and the Belmonts 24 Original Classics (1984)

There have been a lot of ace Dion comps, up to and including his box set. This double-LP is the best (released on CD some time in the Dark Ages but evidently long out of print).

More than almost any other comp of its kind, it traces a journey–from the scorching, white hot doo wop of his youth through his dalliances with folk rock, heroin addiction, singer songwriter sensitivity, rehabilitation and a return to roots. There was more to the man to be sure–Christian music, a series of blues albums (which I really need to get hold of), and a standout version of Nick Lowe’s “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)” that might be my favorite of anything he ever did. But while I’m listening to this, I can’t be convinced anything’s been left out.

1) The Four Tops Greatest Hits (1968)

The Tops can sustain a much longer comp. Their three-record vinyl set is one of the strongest in Motown’s old Anthology series and I’ve got a 50-side double CD that does’t quit. But this straight hit between the eyes is one of life’s perfect things. I wonder how many people feel the desperation in something as jaunty sounding as “I Can’t Help Myself?” And how many think Levi Stubbs was a second-stringer based on his uncanny ability to shield them from the point? Although if you start obsessing on “Reach Out I’ll Be There” or “Standing in the Shadows of Love” where the desperation is impossible to miss–or run from–you can understand how they came out confused.

til next time…

McGUINN-HILLMAN SWEETHEART OF THE RODEO 50TH ANNIVERSARY TOUR–SANDY SPRINGS, GEORGIA, OCTOBER 21, 2018…A HANDY TEN

How it was on at least one night of a tour that keeps getting extended. If it comes near you, see it if you possibly can.

1)  The band comes on. Then McGuinn and Hillman walk in from the wings and launch into the opening chords of “My Back Pages,” which turn out to be as recognizable as “Mr. Tambourine Man” or “Turn, Turn, Turn.” I’m not sure why this surprises me.

2) McGuinn turns out to be the (even) better story teller. First story of the night involves the first time he heard the Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face.”

“Sounded like bluegrass to me….”

3) Turns out he also does a killer Bob Dylan imitation. Anyone who hears him do it just before he demonstrates how he changed the dynamics of “Mr. Tambourine Man” completely (and made it a groundbreaking hit–and one of the most important records of the twentieth century–in the process) will no longer need to labor under the illusion that, in forging the Dylan/Beatles combination that came to be called folk rock (and which everyone thought was as natural as breathing the minute after it happened), the Byrds were somehow lesser.

4) Chris Hillman: “It is true that Gram Parsons and I met in a bank….” I don’t remember if that was before or after he explained how he wrote his first song when he came home from a jazz session with Hugh Masekela’s band. He does not explain why it came out a country song (“Time Between”) except to say that he does not know. This leads to other stories about actually going to Nashville with Gram in tow. The best involves McGuinn demonstrating a riff on the three-finger banjo to one of Nashville’s top session men.

You better let me do that, the fellow said.

5) Marty Stuart’s band is in support and Marty steps out in front a few times. His first memorable moment is just after the intermission when he comes out to warm up the crowd for the second half and plays something from his new album that incorporates the basic riffs from “Eight Miles High” and “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better.”

Which turn out to be as instantly recognizable as “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.” And “My Back Pages.”

6) Then it’s on to Sweetheart material proper and McGuinn’s complete intro to “I Like the Christian Life.”

“When we recorded this song, I didn’t know what it meant. I do now.”

7) And, of course, the umpteenth retelling of being given the cold shoulder by Ralph Emery. Still funny. Still painful. Still suggestive of lost possibilities for American music for generations to come. (He who shall remain nameless McGuinn says. Ralph! the crowd shouts.) Followed by a version of “Drug Store Truck Driving Man” that should be no more than a goof and instead, stings like a rattler. The record sounded like a petulant whine. The version I heard Sunday a week ago was tougher, meaner and funnier. By a factor of ten.

8) The musical highlight of the evening…out of nowhere: “You Don’t Miss Your Water” with McGuinn, Hillman and Stuart in three-part harmony. I’ve only been to the one show so I don’t know if they capture this every time out, but for one night in Atlanta, at least, it was beyond even the Everly Brothers. If Brian Wilson had been there he wouldn’t have needed LSD to see God again.

I wasn’t alone in thinking so. The crowd consisted largely of aging hippies. I think it’s safe to say they had, on average, a minimum of three beers apiece in them by then. And if anyone had dropped a pin between first note and last, it would have sounded like an atom bomb. (Avoid the versions available on YouTube which have spotty sound and barely hint at the quality of what I heard.)

9) For an encore: Proof that, on the right stage with the right sound system, “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star” rocks as hard as anything that has ever hit the air. Then the inevitable Now people tell us we sure do a great version of that Tom Petty song…which segues nicely into a tribute to Petty, the highlight of which is Stuart and his band doing a bluegrass version of “Runnin’ Down a Dream” that builds and builds and lays to rest any question of whether Tom Petty was a genius.

10) A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late….

Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman have lost none of their formidable musical skills and they both sing far better than they did in any clips from the sixties I’ve come across.

These days they’re master showmen as well, but, better than that, they’re Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, the surviving core of the greatest band assembled on American shores after Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens. Just to be in a hall with them was a life-defining experience for me. That there would be so much real magic was almost too much to hope for.

Brother, I’d do it again.

And I confess I didn’t realize this was as close as they would get to either Waycross (Gram Parsons’ principal childhood home) or South Carolina (of the many tall pines)….but, looking back, there might have been a ghost or two wandering about.

FROM THE ROAD…

I’m on laptops so posts will be brief.

Suffice  it to say that McGuinn and Hillman were all I hoped they would be.

When you have as few heroes as I do, the only question that  matters when you’ve spent forty years wondering if you would ever share a brief space with them on  this plane is whether it was worth it.

It  was worth  it. Every minute.

STARTING AROUND FRIDAY…

…I’m going to be busy for a while.

Friend’s birthday party Friday night. High school reunion (hurricane damage permitting) Saturday night. Sunday, I leave for a nine-day trip in which I’ll be visiting North Carolina (my brother), Nashville (my nephew) and Memphis (my oldest sister). On that first Sunday, good Lord willing and the creeks don’t rise, I’ll be in Atlanta to catch the tail-end of Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman’s tour celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

I’m looking forward to all of it but especially the concert. McGuinn and Hillman are in their seventies. Though both still tour a good bit on their own, they don’t get together all that often. Any time might be the last time. My bucket list is pretty short (limited to my living heroes: them, Mary Weiss, a truly reunited Go-Go’s and Al Green’s church…that’s about it). Knocking off even one of them is a big deal.

The plan originally involved catching the show at the Ryman in Nashville (see nephew above) on the 8th. Then Durham on the 15th became a possibility (see brother above). In the end, between work schedules (my nephew’s and mine), my brother’s travel plans (he and his wife took a New England cruise for his 75th birthday), and being priced out of various venues (the Ryman went from $35 to $400 while I was trying to get my act together–eventually came down but it was too late by then), Atlanta became the only option. Looks like a great venue and the ticket was $50 so it all worked out.

I say all that by way of explaining why I may be away from the blog for long stretches between now and the end of the month. If I can get to the blog and have a chance to post from the road I will…and I plan to post on a regular basis between now and Sunday, time and energy permitting.

But, in any case, I don’t want you to think I won’t be thinking of you! Because without all who visit, comment, suggest and make me smile, I’d be diminished more than I can say:

TRACK-BY-TRACK: THE BYRDS PLAY DYLAN

The Byrds Play Dylan (2002)

“What really got me most was Dylan coming up to me and saying, ‘They beat you man,’ and he lost faith in me. He was shattered. His material had been bastardized. There we were, the defenders and protectors of his music, and we’d let Sonny & Cher get away with it.”

Roger McGuinn  (on Dylan’s response, circa 1965, to Sonny & Cher’s version of “All I Really Want To Do” besting the Byrds on the American charts–interesting insight into the spirit of the times!)

Playing Dylan was only a fraction of what the Byrds did, but there’s no denying Roger McGuinn, especially, had a knack for bringing something new and exciting to Dylan’s music almost every time he touched it. This compilation, released decades after their heyday and years after the final Byrds’ studio recordings in the early 1990s (occasioned by their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the release of a box set), is one of my favorites in a genre I sometimes affectionately, sometimes sardonically, refer to as Grab Bag.

Such albums are usually assembled for only the most cynical purposes–record labels looking to exploit familiar product one more time. But every once in a while the approach bears fruit.

This is one of those times.

At twenty tracks, The Byrds Play Dylan is expansive enough to include some illuminating live performances, alternate tracks and obscurities which manage to re-contextualize the familiar anthems from their early days (and to be re-contextualized themselves for Byrds fanatics who may have experienced the obscurities in less convincing circumstances elsewhere–that’s what a record company can do for you).

It’s not perfect–such things never are. But it’s been my go-to album by my favorite band in the Age of Trump. I wouldn’t suggest it’s as mind-blowing as their first five albums, as epochal as Sweetheart of the Rodeo or even Ballad of Easy Rider (an album McGuinn made with his third best band that’s worn better than the movie that inspired it or that movie’s fine soundtrack) or any sort of replacement for The Byrds’ Greatest Hits (nothing could be).

But it is a statement worth hearing.

“All I Really Want To Do”–Dylan was being a little harsh. (And why did Lonesome Hobo Bob* care so much about the charts anyway?) “All I Really Want To Do” is a long way from either his most inspired tune or their most inspired interpretation. But it’s a nice opening day curve-ball for a collection that throws a lot of them (“Mr. Tambourine Man” would have been the obvious choice). And you can measure how great he and they were by listening close and realizing how far past nearly everything else it still is.

“Chimes of Freedom”–As great as any cover of Dylan or anyone else. This album could also have been titled McGuinn Sings Dylan. His voice was always the one best suited for Dylan (hell it was often better suited for Dylan than Dylan, a claim that can me made by exactly no one else). But they were also inventing a new kind of harmony and, considered as a clarion call, this might be their pure pinnacle (the competition is stiff). It remains a mystery how they, and they alone, managed to intertwine so much passion with so much detachment. They really did sound like they were soaring above the earth, catching a glimpse of something over the horizon that was not yet visible to ground control–and, given what’s happened to ground control in the half-century since, still isn’t.

“It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”–Recorded in the sessions for the band’s second album, this version wasn’t released until 1996, as a bonus track for a reissue of Turn, Turn, Turn. It’s inclusion here is a little odd, since McGuinn’s later band did a superior, beautifully re-imagined version for the official release of Ballad of Easy Rider. This is fine. It sustains the collection’s developing mood and gains by the company. But I think the later version would have done the same, only better.

“Lay Down Your Weary Tune”–This, on the other hand, is a track that always struck me as pedestrian on Turn, Turn, Turn. Here, though, it takes hold. The lyric still sounds like Dylan learning to imitate himself, but there’s no better example of McGuinn’s early Rickenbacker magic and his disorienting technique of plying dissonance under the verses, then ringing out rhythmic, anthemic chords in the fills (the opposite of what everyone else does, then and now). After a while (okay, a long while, but still), the lyrics even start to sound….inspired?

“Lay Lady Lay” (Single Version)–A single from the Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde sessions which didn’t make the album (which ought to say something). In many ways misbegotten–a female choir that doesn’t work, overbearing late-sixties uber-production style, jarring juxtapositions between the lyric and the chorus. Notable for one element: A dry, pleading McGuinn vocal which makes it sound as though he sees the lady laying across the big, brass bed in human, rather than mystical, terms, as though he might be speaking to someone specific with whom he had been through a lot of changes. That quality alone guaranteed it wouldn’t be a hit up against Dylan’s lovely original, but gives it a poignance not found in any other version, including the one below, which, for all I can tell, is the same vocal with a different, more conventional backing. In this context: Odd and disorienting, as I’m sure was intended.

“Mr. Tambourine Man”–The first official Byrds’ single, a natural Number One and one of the most important records of the twentieth century. Here, it sounds almost off-hand, as though the startling new thing were no more spectacular than breathing. The marriage of Dylan and the Beatles was nowhere near as inevitable as McGuinn (the only Byrd who played on the track due to the record company’s lack of faith–soon rendered laughable–in the young band’s musical prowess) made it sound. As always happens when some visionary renders the far-fetched inevitable, the world–including Bob Dylan, who laid down Highway 61 Revisited as this sat atop the charts–went “Of Course!” (And it’s a fine segue: straight from the human-scale “Lay Lady Lay,” to the era-defining anthem that made this album’s concept possible in the first place.) Why should you wait any longer for the world to begin, this record asked, years before Dylan wrote the words to that other song.

“My Back Pages”–Another in competition for Greatest-Ever Dylan cover. It has–impossibly–grown with the years, precisely because those years have failed to catch up to it.

“Nothing Was Delivered”–A highlight from Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It’s worth remembering that Sweetheart inspired reams of musicians, not one of whom ever came close to sounding like the original–maybe because no one else really thought Dylan and country music belonged together, no matter that Bob made the greatest albums of his life in Nashville.

“Positively 4th Street” (Live)–This is where the concept comes in handy. This isn’t the kind of song where Roger McGuinn or anyone else could go toe-to-toe with Dylan and come out ahead. And McGuinn, in particular, never did anger (or spite) well. But, here, his ability to turn the concept around is put to the test–and passes. Suddenly, I hear You got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend as a plea, even a world-weary sigh of regret. I’m not saying I like it better, or even as well, but who else could come so close to Dylan’s timbre and completely reverse his meaning?

“Spanish Harlem Incident”–Back to the beginning and a reminder of how rife with possibilities it was. This sounds like they did it on their lunch break–and fifty years haven’t worn it out.

“The Times They Are A-Changin'”–From their second album, where, like “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” it came across as a bit of a letdown. One wonders if they were being careful not to become too tied to Dylan’s material as he matched, then eclipsed, their fame. Then again, this wasn’t the only take–see below! This one is saved, barely, by the usual impeccable harmonies and McGuinn’s witty guitar licks, which made it sound like Dylan was Stephen Foster’s natural heir (amplified by his take on “Oh Susanna”…but that’s what the original albums are for).

“Wheel’s on Fire”–The opening cut from Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde, their weakest album from the sixties (and if you want to know how great Roger McGuinn was, listen to Dr. Byrds sometime and consider he made seven better albums with three different bands in five years). I prefer it to the Band’s contemporaneous version. Still, the era-bound production tricks don’t really work and this lumbers more than it should. The concept wavers a bit….

“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”–And then snaps right back in place. I’m among those who think the real strength of Sweetheart of the Rodeo (from which this is the opener) is the juxtaposition of McGuinn and Parsons’ sensibilities. Of course, that’s not at play here, so this is a completely different context…which works every bit as well.

“It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” (Live)–It took a while but this one has grown on me. This is one case where Dylan’s original is so definitive it doesn’t seem to leave any room for anyone else to breathe. McGuinn’s voice isn’t nearly as commanding….but once more a human, conversational tone lets the song gain a new dimension. It isn’t the prophet proclaiming. It’s the poor boy figuring things out without being the least bit certain he likes what he sees. Plus some fine harp work.

“Just Like a Woman”–Nice enough. Maybe too nice. All the qualities I mentioned before about McGuinn cutting down the scale are present, but, somehow, the song doesn’t offer the same rewards. Until you notice the country phrasing of her fog, her amphetamine and her pearls is right where you least expect it. At which point, I believe it’s time for us to quit offers a reward all its own.

“Lay Lady Lay” (Alternate Version)–Straightforward alternative to the tricked up version above. More tasteful without necessarily being more effective. Somewhere in the middle, a great version might have been waiting. For the purposes of this collection, a tease that doesn’t distract.

“The Times They Are A-Changin'” (Early Version)–I like the charge they put into this version better than the tongue they put in their cheek on the released master (which nonetheless had its values, see above). Still not as good as the Beach Boys’ complete subversion on Party! and, oddly enough, it doesn’t sound like anything is changing at all.

“Mr. Tambourine Man” (Live)–From ’70. The old anthem sounds tired, the new guitar dynamics show-offy. And it’s a lesson in how much those harmonies in the original group really meant and how rarefied they were that their absence speaks louder than anything present here. Still, if you wanted to hear this as a symbol of how things had gone astray, I wouldn’t argue with you.

“Chimes of Freedom” (Live)–From ’69 and the harmonies are still missed. But McGuinn at least sounds committed and, while it’s almost too bad they didn’t substitute the more poorly recorded, but near-desperate version heard here, this still pushes back hard enough for what comes next to feel like a setup they earned.

“Paths of Victory”–After listening to later versions of the band wander around a bit, perhaps even lose the plot, this summoning of the old magic by the survivors, harmonies intact one last time, puts a smile on my face every time. A tired smile maybe, but at this point in the American Experiment, I’ll take what I can get.

More than that, it always makes me want to go back and listen from the beginning and maybe ask one more time just what it is I see flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight?

God bless them, every one. Yes, David, even you.

*Hat tip Nik Cohn and Rock Dreams.

WE ALL GOTTA BE BORN SOME TIME, SOMEWHERE, IN SOME COUNTRY OR OTHER….(Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #116)

I normally don’t think much about Easy Rider. I saw the movie somewhere along the way and my general reaction was “I guess you had to be there.”

Then I ran across Ileana Douglas’ top ten movies at the Criterion Collection website (which you can view here), which led me to her twitter page, which led me to her podcasts, which you can sample here–highly recommended, just be sure you have some time on your hands because it’s kind of addicting.)

But one quote from her comments on the first time she saw Easy Rider stuck out.

…let me tell you, the first time I saw it on TV, all cut up, I thought: This is the movie that ruined our lives and turned us into dirty hippies? I just didn’t get it.

By “our’ and “us” she meant her own family, especially her father, who took the movie for a road map on how to live the rest of his life, an obsession that was bound to have an effect on his then five-year-old daughter.

Her father, as it happened, was the son of a famous Hollywood actor who called himself Melvyn Douglas (the family name was Hesselberg). Douglas herself, chose her grandfather’s profession and adopted his surname. And eventually she came to terms with both her “dirty hippy” upbringing and Easy Rider. Hence its inclusion in her Top Ten Criterion films (which I recommend reading in full–on top of her abundantly self-evident charms, she’s an excellent writer).

I’ll probably watch Easy Rider again at some point. Movies sometimes grow with repeated viewings. And no movie can be entirely without existential interest if the main characters are based on Roger McGuinn and David Crosby.

And I’ll keep Ms. Douglas’ reassessment in mind.

But I’m pretty sure one thing will stick in my craw. That’s the ending, which imagines the Modern Southern Redneck, not as the natural ally of hippie culture that he was (I’m speaking as someone who grew up around as many rednecks as Ileana did hippies), but as an extension of the Klan, come out from under the sheets and gone hunting hippies.

One can never say something-or-other didn’t happen to somebody-or-other somewhere-or-other some-time-or-other.

Maybe somewhere, sometime, some hillbilly killed a hippy for the frivolous reasons presented in Easy Rider (frivolous as in “I just don’t like them sons-a-bitches. Let’s shoot ’em!”)

For a better look at the real flavor of backwoods’ paranoia, I’d recommend Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort, which came out in the early eighties (and seemed to take something out of Hill, who was never quite the same again).

But you can get the gist from the music that defined the relationship between the hillbillies and the hippies–Charlie Daniel’s “Long-Haired Country Boy,” Hank Williams Jr.’s truly paranoid “Country Boy Can Survive,” and especially Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” which circles back to Viet Nam, catches up the whole story and brings it to its natural conclusion.

The message from the hardcore hillbilly has been the same going all the way back to the Scottish highlands.

Best leave me the hell alone.

In this respect, at least, Easy Rider took the easy way out.

Just like the rest of the country.

Left us with the movie–and the world–that defined my childhood…Which was much tougher, much funnier, didn’t tell a single lie, and didn’t have the answers either.

May have to write about that some day.

Meanwhile, I’ll just keep in touch with that other world I didn’t quite grow up in, in the usual way. By listening…

 

POP SYMPHONIES (Segue of the Day: 4/4/17)

The way it was in ’65.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Those of you who have been following along for a while here know I’m fond of Time Life’s year-by-year surveys of music from the fifties, sixties and seventies.

The foundation for it all is a handful of CDs a fellow at work gave me about twenty years ago in lieu of sending them off to Goodwill. They survived the great CD selloff of 2002 because the record store wouldn’t take them. First among those were 1965: Classic Rock and its companion volume 1965: The Beat Goes On.

With oldies’ radio now a distant memory in my market, these are my closest proxy. (Somehow, listening to “radio” on the internet, or my satellite TV package just isn’t the same.) And, while I almost always learn something when I listen close to any given volume, these are the ones that still startle me the most.

With the Beatles, Stones and Dylan all missing (due to their catalogs being jealously guarded), you could still pick any couple of the forty-four cuts on these two discs, where there is nothing close to a pedestrian side, and write a short history of the Universe.

Relax: I’m not gonna do that.

I’m just going to talk about the Supremes and the Shangri-Las, two of my favorite subjects anyway, and paired here on tracks 16 and 17 of The Beat Goes On.

Funny enough, I had never really noticed it before: “I Hear a Symphony” and “I Can Never Go Home Any More” set back to back. This…

which, given Diana Ross’s gift for finding seduction in the saddest, most desperate breakup songs and melancholy in the most joyous love songs, could just as well be about the guy who left Mary Weiss in this…

…the most wrenching tale in the Shangs’  own little universe, which has more wrenching tales than any universe I know.

It’s not implausible to think that, if Berry Gordy had grown up in Queens instead of Detroit, Wiess might have had a dozen #1s and Ross might have had one or none.

But it’s probably not that simple. Alternative universes never are.

Diana Ross would have been driven by ambition wherever she was born. Even before she was famous–or Berry Gordy’s squeeze–it’s fair to assume that each record was part of a larger plan.

Weiss’s genius was for making every song she sang sound like it might be her last. That’s not exactly a surefire formula for building a career.

These two songs running together on a comp made her and Diana sound like sisters who never quite got along and thus walked different paths that only crossed at commitment to something larger than themselves.

They used to call that culture and rock and roll existed to extend it, make it larger, let new voices from places like Queens and Detroit sing out and express whatever special quality they possessed. Culture is supposed to make the world larger.

Except when we’re fooling ourselves, we don’t call it culture or anything else now, because the essential thing that made these records possible has vanished like smoke. Not the technology or the musical training or the will or even the voices themselves. Just the belief that it matters to something more than the bank account.

These days, everyone has an eye on their career from the cradle to the grave, so no one gives too much away in any single moment.

Once you start down that path–where Mary Weiss can’t exist–then Diana Ross can’t exist either, because there’s nothing for her to measure herself against.

If you want to know what that sounds like, now that even the 70s are becoming a distant memory, you can turn on your car radio any hour of the day and let it run straight from the lowest number to the highest.

And if you think that’s depressing, just be glad I”m not giving you access to what went through my head concerning the Roger McGuinn picking vs. Jeff Beck shredding guitars on “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “I’m a Man!” because, except through a pair of cheap headphones, we can’t go back there either.

TIME PASSAGES (Segue of the Day: 10/11/16)

I always kind of liked the Beach Boys’ version of “California Dreamin'” from back in the eighties. I discovered the video version a few months back, but it was only this week that I found the time to live in it. There’s not really a definitive version on YouTube. One version has a good picture and no graphic overlays, but muddy sound. The only other version up right now has great sound but a murky, blurred picture. If you play both a few times in rapid succession, though, it’s possible for the genius of the concept to sink in. John Phillips shows up as a Preacher who likes the Cold and moonlights as a Saxophone God (Steve Douglas maybe?). Roger McGuinn plays a troubador (natch). Michelle Phillips plays a dreamboat from an old Mamas and Papas’ song (i.e., her own ghost). The Beach Boys themselves play men who know their time is up and it’s all filmed in elegaic black and white, the better to remind you that the age they sprang from occurred in the brightest, shiniest Technicolor the world will ever see, in or out of the Hollywood these people once took over and let go of (or had wrested from them) in the space of a heartbeat.

Good sound…lousy picture:

Good picture….lousy sound:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TuGtJWyYO4c

And, just a few YouTube clicks away, one might find Hanson, from this year, playing their hard won role as the only Boy Band who ever aged gracefully, which makes sense, since they were the talented ones:

I know which is more joyous. As the most rightfully dreaded Election Day since 1860 draws nigh, I can’t decide which is more wistful.

MY FAVORITE HARMONY GROUP SINGER: ROCK AND ROLL DIVISION (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

First I better offer up my definition of a “harmony group,” which is any group that tends to privilege harmony over lead-and-support. That’s tricky. In rock and roll, lead and support groups almost always had formidable harmonies, even if they just amounted to Keith leaning into Mick’s mike. And, in fact, one of my two favorite rock and roll vocal arrangements (I’m leaving black and white gospel and bluegrass out of this) is Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia” which is just about the definition of a lead and support group finishing each others’ breaths. My other favorite is the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which is so purely harmonic it sounds like it couldn’t possibly have been “arranged” any more than breathing is.

With those for logical extremes, there’s a lot of room in between. I’d place the midpoint somewhere in the neighborhood of the Rascals’ “Good Lovin’,” which weaves a lot of fantastic  and surprising harmonies into a classic lead and support structure. Start asking which sub-category the Rascals, or that record, fall in and we could be here all day.

So, to keep it simple, I’ll just list all the rock and roll aggregations I think of as being true harmony groups of the first order (no matter how many great leads they may have featured):

The Everly Brothers (from whom all else flows); the Fleetwoods; the Beach Boys; the Beatles; the Hollies; the Byrds; Simon and Garfunkel; the Mamas & the Papas; the 5th Dimension (at least until somebody figured out they could sell a lot more records by putting Marilyn McCoo out front); Spinners (a close call but I put them just this side of the divide); the Persuasions; ABBA; The Bangles.

That’s a nice baker’s dozen. I’m leaving out a lot. I’m counting Peter, Paul and Mary as folk. Doo wop is very confusing in this respect as is reggae. Groups as diverse as the Four Seasons, the Shangri-Las, the Jackson 5 or the Staple Singers (just to name a very few) had consistently fantastic harmonies, but were finally dominated by their principal lead singers. And a group like the Searchers made plenty of fine records without quite sustaining the heights of those I mentioned.

Still, even whittling the definition down to the bone, I’m left with Phil and Don, Gary Troxel, Brian and Carl; Paul and John; Allan Clarke; Gene Clark (with a nod to Roger McGuinn, who shared Sly Stone’s uncanny ability to be the dominant force in a group where he was far from the best singer); Paul and Artie; Denny and Cass; Marilyn and Billy; Bobby Smith and Philippe Wynne; Jerry Lawson; Agnetha and Frida; Susanna Hoffs and the Peterson sisters. (Update: Of course, I was bound to overlook a few. A day later, I already see the Impressions and the Turtles are inexcusably missing. Make ti a baker’s dozen plus two, then and my sincere apologies to Curtis and Howard and whoever else it will turn out I forgot. But it doesn’t change the final answer! 2nd Update: Also forgot the Bee Gees. Oh, yeah, them! Sorry Barry. Sorry Robin.)

If I had to pick a “greatest” I wouldn’t.Not even with a gun to my head. I’m a little thick but I’m not stupid.

As for a favorite?

Well, sometimes it’s easier than you think it will be.

You just have to think of a little test.

Like, who, of all those great singers, could make me listen to this tripe all the way through, every single time it ever came on the radio, just to hear a four line chorus which featured maybe your fiftieth best vocal?

You, Carl. Only you.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ChADh1zt5I

I’ve said it before, but there’s a piece of me that will never accept him being gone.

[Next Up…yet another fool’s game: My Favorite Dylan Cover]

 

FOLK ROCK (Great Vocal Events In the History of Rock and Roll: Volume 2)

Continuing with this little idea inspired by the fiftieth anniversary of the British Invasion last month.

As before, I’ve linked to live performances, or at least interesting video comps, where possible, even if they aren’t always the best vocal presentations–there’s usually a pure studio version next door on YouTube if you just want to listen to the record. Also, as before, I’ve listed lead singers for groups and relevant harmony singers (not necessarily every singer who appeared on every record).

And, once again, this is really a smattering. Most “vocal events” in rock and roll history are deep enough and broad enough to warrant their own encyclopedias. The Byrds, Bob Dylan and the Mamas and the Papas, for instance, could each easily sustain a list of this length all by themselves.

What I’m trying to do with each segment is give the general shape of the thing from a singing perspective–including all the most important voices, who did what, a little of why it mattered and what it may have felt like in the moment, plus how it resonates through the years. I encourage any and all to comment on any significant oversights! I do put some time into these but it ain’t entirely scientific.

As a final note, for all of this great genre’s vaunted (and revolutionary) lyricism–defined by, but not limited to, the emergence of Bob Dylan as the Voice of a Generation–it was, as always, the singing which put it across. Harmony singing, for instance, though it had (thanks to the Everly Brothers) been in the rock and roll mix from almost the very beginning and had been raised to new, exciting heights by the Beach Boys and the Beatles, had never been quite so central to American music and never quite would be again.

“When You Walk In The Room”–Jackie DeShannon: Released as a B-side, it crawled to #99 on the charts in the space between John Kennedy’s assassination and the Beatles’ arrival in America, staying there for exactly one week. Not the first time the future has come creeping in the back door. This was probably intended as a “girl group” record and, frankly, it works on that level, too. But she was already on to Bob Dylan and somebody, at least, was on to jangling guitars. Her record company refused to let her do an album of Dylan covers or the actual term “folk rock” might have been coined a year and half earlier than it was. (Heck a lot of things might have had names a year or two earlier than they did if the world had been in the habit of paying just a touch more heed to whatever Jackie was up to.) Anyway, with rockabilly and soul already deep in her skin, bones and vocal chords and every hipster in L. A. in her social circle, she really was the perfect harbinger.

“Laugh, Laugh”–The Beau Brummels (Sal Valentino, lead vocal): This broke out of San Francisco in the Winter of ’64. It sort of got lost, later on, that the Summer of Love San Francisco scene-sters nearly all started out as folkies. Odd, then, that the Beau Brummels should grab the spotlight first–and with Sly Stone producing no less. Their sound was nicely stripped down, though. Folk rock before it had a name, yes, but the “rock” part was from the garage. (Alternate: “You Were On My Mind” by San Francisco’s We Five, which radiates joy.)

“Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Chimes of Freedom”–The Byrds (Roger McGuinn, lead vocals, Gene Clark and David Crosby harmony vocals): The cataclysm. Summer of ’65. Of course, “Mr. Tambourine Man” was the breakout, watershed, etc.–truly one of the most important records ever made. Dylan had been taken high on the charts as a protest poet (Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Blowing In the Wind,” Mary Travers leading) and slick-as-grease ladies’ man (P,P&M’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” Noel Paul Stookey leading and laying it on even thicker than Dylan himself, which was maybe harder than anybody thought at the time). Now, he went to the very top–not as those or any of the multitude of other, occasionally dubious. things he was–but as magic realist. All well and good. But the purely vocal essence of both the Byrds and the larger cosmos they had latched onto, was perhaps better defined by “Chimes of Freedom,” which was not only more imaginatively arranged and deeply felt, but more magical and realist and Dylanesque as well. (Alternate: Their version of DeShannon’s “Don’t Doubt Yourself Babe,” also from their monumental first album, which, among other things, brought Bo Diddley’s beat into the mix.)

“Like a Rolling Stone”–Bob Dylan: Speaking of cataclysms. Greil Marcus wrote a good book about this one and I don’t think I really have anything to add except to say that it’s worth writing a book about.

“The Sound of Silence”–Simon and Garfunkel (Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, shared lead vocals): (Also known as “The Sounds of Silence.” I’m using Simon’s preference.) Recorded a bit earlier, when folk harmony duos were all the rage on the folk scene and nowhere else. Even the success of British variants like Peter and Gordon in the wake of the Beatles success couldn’t get the concept off the ground in Middle America. But the duo (which had broken up by the summer of 65) had been signed to Columbia and, after the Byrds and Dylan smashed out, producer Tom Wilson decided to see how the folkies would sound with electric guitars and an echo chamber. Turned out it sounded like a natural #1. The boom was on. Thrown back together by the record’s unlikely ride up the charts, Paul and Artie sounded like they could finish each other’s heartbeats. They’ve been fighting ever since.

“Do You Believe In Magic”–The Lovin’ Spoonful (John Sebastian, lead vocal): Here, the “magic” was rock and roll, which was a pretty heady admission for any folkie as deep-dyed as John Sebastian–I mean, the man played an autoharp. Probably the best example, among an army of such, of a singer–and a band–forced out of their collective comfort zone by the times. They retreated soon enough, but while the walls were down they went a lot further than anybody could have guessed in the days before Bob Dylan and Jackie DeShannon came along. Never further than this, their brightest of many shining moments.

“It Ain’t Me Babe”–The Turtles (Howard Kaylan, lead vocal): A heartbeat earlier, they were the Crossfires and you know a concept is breaking big when it catches up the local surf band and turns them into singing folkies. And you also know the local surf band isn’t just any old band–that they might have a run of hits in them–when they make it sound this good.

“I Got You Babe”–Sonny and Cher: What was it George Melly said? Revolt into style? Something like that. (Alternate: “Summer Rain” by Johnny Rivers, which sounds even better but lacks the essence of a Zeitgeist that’s bound to occur whenever Cher is involved in either the revolt or the style. NOTE: It could be my imagination, but judging by the chilly audience reception in the otherwise very charming Top of the Pops clip I linked, the Brits may really have seen folk rock as a very specific threat to the Pop hegemony the Beatles had established on an almost gut-level. In which case, they were right. Or maybe Sonny had ticked somebody off. Yeah, that could be it.)

“Turn, Turn, Turn”–The Byrds (Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark, shared lead vocals, David Crosby, harmony vocal): Go tell it on the mountain. Look forward, look back.

“Eve of Destruction”–Barry McGuire: Go tell it on the mountain again. Tell everybody an earthquake is coming.

“California Dreaming”–The Mamas and the Papas (Denny Doherty, lead vocal; Cass Elliot, John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, harmony vocals): The greatest pure vocal group in folk rock and probably in all of rock and roll, with two fantastic leads (one male, one female) and, because of the unrivaled gender balance, so many ways to approach harmony that my lifetime of listening has never stopped yielding surprises. And their credentials were fully established before they escaped the first line of their first record. (Incidentally, I heard a right wing talk show host play this coming out of a commercial break just the other day. He wanted to make some point about the uselessness of hippies–yes they still do that. He thought this was the song to do it with. Believe me, it was a mistake.)

“Go Where You Wanna Go”–The Mamas and the Papas: Lead? Harmony? Who knows. The dynamics are literally head-spinning. The lyric is a great shout of freedom, something you might have expected from the early Beatles. The vocal arrangement, which might be the tightest in the history of the universe, is also so expansive that it actually amounts to a shout of maniacal laughter directly in the face of any and all listeners (let alone any rival singers) who try to keep all the way up. All that without being too tricky for its own good. Given what happened–to them and the world–it winds up in a rather disorienting place. Every time it starts, I think it’s bound to end happily and every time it ends I can’t believe I got fooled again. Can’t get more folk or rock than that. (By way of comparison, the Fifth Dimension, who have a claim on being one of the dozen or so greatest vocal groups of the rock and roll era themselves, covered this, had a hit with it, and sounded like somebody had stranded them in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.)

“Sloop John B”–The Beach Boys (Brian Wilson and Mike Love, lead vocals, Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, harmony vocals): Having had no small amount of influence on the scene themselves, it figured they’d make at least onr classic of the form. That it would be an actual folk song–and from the West Indies at that–was maybe not so obvious. Nor was the fact that they would improve the concept so dramatically.

“For What It’s Worth”–(Stephen Stills, lead vocal, Richie Furay and Dewey Martin, harmony vocals): Stills looked out the window (or something) and saw some kids being hassled over protesting the closing of a night club (or something). Wrote this song, waxed his greatest vocal by far, and proved a point: All politics is local (or something).

“Different Drum”–The Stone Poneys (Linda Ronstadt, lead vocal): Not my favorite Ronstadt by a long shot, but a necessary deep breath in the wake of “Go Where You Wanna Go,” and a look ahead to some essential elements of California Rock (and, actually, pretty darn great for all that).

“Too Much of Nothing”–Peter, Paul and Mary (Mary Travers, lead vocal, Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey, harmony vocals: They had put Bob Dylan on the charts, and done it so far ahead of anybody else that it is hardly a given he would have gotten there at all if they hadn’t made him–and management–a bucket-load of money practically right out of the box. (Laugh if you want, but it never happened for Woody Guthrie and the times hadn’t changed all that much.) That said, there wasn’t much “rock” in their early sound. They smoked this, though, and, on the live version I linked, you can hear (and even see, frankly) Stookey’s roots in doo-wop.

“She Belongs to Me”–Rick Nelson: A chance for a rocker–and a weary teen idol–to pause, take his time, find his natural rhythm, maybe grow up. (Alternate: Bobby Darin’s “If I Were a Carpenter,” and ditto.)

“Abraham, Martin and John” and “Sonny Boy” and “Daddy Rollin”–Dion: There had to be one definitive topical record in a genre called folk rock. And there had to be one definitive tribute to the blues in a genre called folk rock. And there had to be one definitive song about drug addiction in a genre that was so deeply associated with the radicalizing aspects of the sixties. Happened that the same guy sang all three–in 1968, when all that stuff pretty much had to happen. Not saying that guy had to be a New York doo-wopper recovering from his own drug addiction of course. But it worked out that way. (Sorry, I couldn’t find a link to “Sonny Boy.”)

“Meet On the Ledge”–Fairport Convention (Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny, dueling lead vocals): The Beatles and the Stones were hardly immune to folk rock and its key practitioners were hardly immune to them. But the Fabs really were a tad slick and the Stones really were a bit louche. That’s a lot of what made them great, mind you, but for a genuine British variant of “folk” and “rock,” I think this dove much deeper into the connection than, say, “Yesterday,” or “Ruby Tuesday.” (Alternate, looking forward: Robert Plant and Denny dueling on “The Battle of Evermore” on Led Zeppelin IV–an album that represents but one of the interesting directions this concept took in the seventies. Alternate, looking back: Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” which I wrote about in the British Invasion portion of the program linked above.)

“Freedom”–Richie Havens: Now there had to be something great in the form that would become attached at the hip to Woodstock. Without that, the cosmos really would have gone all out of whack–God might no longer recognize us at all. And why shouldn’t it be by the dude who owned the coffee-house circuit in the days when the idea of moving so many masses was just so many gleams in so many folk-singer’s eyes? Actually, why would it be by anybody else?

“Get Together”–The Youngbloods (Jessie Colin Young, lead vocal, Jerry Corbit, harmony vocal): A song so many people had taken a shot at that, by 1969, when this became a hit, it must have seemed next to impossible that anybody would ever define it. Turned out somebody already had, all the way back in 1967, when they recorded it. Very folk, that. And very rock and roll. (The link is to a medley, of which “Get Together” is only a small piece…but it’s too perfect a time capsule to pass up. Where else can you find Milton Berle asking for a “warm recession?”)

“Put a Little Love In Your Heart”–Jackie Deshannon: An apotheosis from the founding mother–understatement and urgency tugging on each other’s sleeves. Perhaps the finest purely vocal evocation of the better world waiting that, of course, never arrived.

“We Can Be Together”–Jefferson Airplane (Grace Slick and Marty Balin, shared lead vocals, Paul Kantner, harmony vocal): Had to get some genuinely radical politics in there somewhere. The difference, if you will, between waiting for a better world and demanding it. Not that it ended up making much difference, but it’s nice to recall that somebody–anybody, however callow–once actually tried.

“Ohio”–Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (Neil Young, lead vocal, David Crosby, harmony vocal, Graham Nash and Stephen Stills, additional harmony vocals): The dirge of history and tragedy and violence that was lying under the folk part of folk rock all along (not to speak of the righteous anger), finally boiling all the way to the surface, with a guitar line that always makes it seem impossible any singer can live up to it, right up until Neil Young opens his mouth.

“Every Picture Tells a Story” and “Maggie May”–Rod Stewart (Maggie Bell and Long John Baldry, harmony vocals on “Every Picture Tells a Story”): Well, like I said, the concept went in interesting directions, including straight back to the blues. I suspect the narratives of these two songs are the sort of story the Coen Brothers were really trying to tell in their recent homage to the early sixties folk scene Inside Llewyn Davis (a scene which Rod Stewart, of course, had nothing to do with but it turned out that a wannabe soccer hooligan diverted by his talent into lasting fame and fortune knew more about it than all their research could discover). Not too surprisingly, they lacked the nerve. Then again, their considerable skill was bound to be squandered. No amount of mere nerve would have let them tell these tales anywhere near as well.

“Lean On Me”–Bill Withers: Back to the healing basics, sans any trace of  the old utopianism. And actually a purer example of this style by now so fully incorporated it could go almost anywhere than, say, “Heart of Gold” or “Horse With No Name.” And I’m pretty sure this was the only folk rock record to ever hit #1 on the R&B charts, which it reached the week after the Watergate break-in and initial arrests sent an early sign that the reactionary chill which always follows a revolution (no matter the outcome) and was bound to leave us in need of a little basic healing, had begun in earnest.

“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”–Bob Dylan: World weary theme from a Sam Peckinpah movie. Hard to think of a better way to close down the concept than that.