David Cantwell has a piece in Rolling Stonecelebrating the fortieth anniversary of a landmark year in country music. Most of the albums he recommends challenge or overturn that era’s conventional marketing categories…all while yielding big hits–most becoming staples. Based on the half I have in my collection and what I’ve heard of the others, I (as usual) heartily endorse his choices.
My only nit to pick is his preference for Bonnie Raitt’s version of “Angel From Montgomery” over Tanya Tucker’s….them’s fightin’ words!
Against that, and what really matters, a thousand times yes on Jeannie Kendall…
They fail, of course. In 1969, Rolling Stone had writers worthy of giving Brenda her due, but no interest. Now they have the interest, but no writers. This writer’s conclusion is that Brenda should be remembered because she once sold a lot of records and other famous people say nice things about her.
The two photographs above are included in the article and they say more about why Brenda Lee matters than the 4,000 words that accompany them. Unlike these photos, the accompanying words convey no heart, no guts, no insight, no trace of why anyone, including the writer, should care. They’re a perfect incorporation of modern media formula and they offer no reason whatsoever that we should take Brenda Lee any more seriously than does the anonymous horde from which the writer fails to distance himself.
My 4,000 words hardly did her justice either–4,000 words never could–but at least I tried. In the face of half-a-century of crit-illuminati indifference, I consider that better than nothing, which, except for these historic photographs (neither of which I had seen and each of which is nearly as great as my banner photo–they tell a bigger story side by side because, outside of Rock and Roll America, they don’t look like they could have come from the same world, let alone the same life), the Rolling Stone piece is not.
(FWIW: I’m also a better headline writer: There’s no crucible better, it seems, than the back room of the Chipola Junior College journalism building, circa 1979. Me and a kid named Rusty used to bang ’em out. He joined the Navy that summer and died after taking three in the chest a year later in a dispute following an Orlando traffic accident. Don’t worry brother. If we ever do get beat, it won’t be by Rolling Stone.)
All of which leads me to the Fifteenth Maxim: Do not bury what you came to praise and do not exemplify what you claim to dispute.
But, better than all that, you could just listen again:
I’m still recovering from the trip…And still being reminded I ain’t as young as I used to be. But I did want to comment on Rolling Stone‘s new list of the 100 Greatest Country Artists. It’s not the worst of its kind I’ve seen, not even the worst provided by Rolling Stone. You can read their own explanation for why they left off Elvis (who would be in the top ten of any real list). They don’t need to explain why they left off Brenda Lee and Linda Ronstadt and the Everly Brothers (had to make room for Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, among others). Or why they think Garth Brooks is “greater” than Lefty Frizzell (a judgment that will be considered at the level of a “what were they thinking” Communist plot when they update the list a generation hence).
But at least Patty Loveless made the list. Heck, she even came in three spots ahead of Taylor Swift, for which I imagine David Cantwell, who wrote Patty’s entry and is one of the few people on the selection committee who demonstrably knows anything about country music, can be thanked.
Why she’s fifty-two spots below Shania Twain, on a list that includes the words “Greatest,” “Country” and “Artists” in its title?
Well, there’s no explaining that. So I’ll just dedicate a song…from Patty to the rest of the selection committee:
I’ve been waiting for these particular Patty Loveless/Miranda Lambert duets to pop up on YouTube with audio to do the performances justice. They’re here at last. And while Patty Loveless can’t truly pass a torch any more than George Jones or Al Green could, Miranda Lambert is the performer who has benefited most–both artistically and commercially–from the ground she broke open, stone by stone, a generation earlier without Rolling Stone or the Village Voice paying the least mind. The way Nashville politics work, Miranda will probably make the Hall of Fame before Patty does. (Go ahead, Nashville, surprise me…I’ll eat crow from now til the Judgement if you do. Cross my heart and hope to die.) But there will never be any doubt about who walks in whose shadow….and they really should do a duet album.
This is a pretty brave piece, but one not-very-brave line stood out:
“The idea that it’s OK to publish an allegation when you yourself are not confident in what your source is saying is a major departure from what was previously thought to be the norm in a paper like the Post.”
My immediate response was “Who thought this? I want their names!”
It could be I’ve just been conditioned by thirty-five years of what my friends like to call paranoia and what I, watching them recede ever further into their cocoons, like to call reality.
You know, as in: It’s not paranoia just because the rest of ya’ll are too damn stupid to know they’re out to get you too.
Or it could be I was just extra-sensitive because I had been listening to a little Creedence over the New Year’s break….because that’s always good for some perspective on a bright, sunny new year. And what I thought when I played this one particular video (part of a small DVD package that comes with the Creedence Singles‘ collection), was that I had not only missed the significance of John Fogerty’s ability to measure up to Marvin Gaye’s finest paranoid hour, but the significance of his band being able to measure up to the Funk Brothers’ finest hour of any sort period.
Which then further made me consider, to a degree I hadn’t before, that I never really missed what the Beatles left undone because I never thought they left anything undone. But if I could turn back time and change a few things, having Creedence stay together, and somehow always be as they were here, would be high on my must-do list.
It also made me consider that, if Van Morrison really was the most important white blues singer between Elvis and Ronnie Van Zant, then it was really saying something, because the competition was even fiercer than I thought.
Well, now they’ll share a death date. It’s not likely they shared much else, except being representative–even definitive–icons of two generations that were destined to clash.
Lennon was literally born with German bombs falling on Liverpool. Glenn was one of those duty-bound to save a space for him to dream in. I wouldn’t venture to guess what, if anything, they thought of each other.
I put most of my feelings about the dichotomous impact of the “greatest generation” and its offspring here, the last time an astronaut and a sixties’ singer were linked in death. Obviously, the analogy isn’t perfect. Neil Armstrong and John Glenn punch at about the same weight, but John Lennon was a far greater figure than Scott MacKenzie, though, perhaps for that every reason, no more representative of my points, such as they were.
Like millions of others, I got the news of Lennon’s horrible murder from Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford on Monday Night Football. You can measure how long ago that was by noting that MNF was still a big deal, airing on a major broadcast network. You can get a further measure by noting that “major” and “broadcast” are not concepts that attach to any television network these days. The cultural and political coherence that made winning the space race and Beatlemania simultaneously plausible has now shattered in every possible way.
Other than the real horror in Cosell’s voice, the lasting memory I have of Lennon’s death was the numbness–“Hell, it wasn’t like he owed me money,” one of my college friends said, when another one asked us what we thought about it and I couldn’t articulate a reply. We all laughed and shrugged. Ronald Reagan had been elected to put a happy smiley face on our futures a month before. No sense getting all spoony about a hippie being shot down in the New York streets he, having once been a Beatle–some would say the Beatle–had become sufficiently deluded, perhaps by the dreaming he did in that space all those John Glenns had won, to believe he could walk without a body guard.
But that didn’t come close to the numbness I felt when one of the thirty-something NY natives interviewed on television promised Lennon’s death would be way-y-y-y bigger than Elvis’s. Struggling to put into words just why this was inevitably so, he didn’t mention that Lennon’s death had been truly shocking, while Elvis’s had an air of sad inevitability. He didn’t mention that the people who served the media (as opposed to those who ran it, who had no dog in the hunt) had a thousand times more love and respect for Lennon than they ever had for Elvis (Jann Wenner, then still editor of Rolling Stone, rather famously had to be convinced that Elvis’s death would even be a big deal…I doubt he needed any such assurance concerning Lennon).
No, he said: “I mean, they play the Beatles in elevators!”
Turned out, he thought the real reason the death of a Beatle would produce a longer and deeper mourning than that of Elvis, was because his music (or Paul McCartney’s anyway…I’m hearing “Yesterday” in those elevators) had met the bar for Muzak.
I predicted right then that Lennon’s death would generate nothing like the outpouring of grief that Elvis’s death had done, either right then, or in the future.
Right or wrong, fair or unfair, it didn’t and it hasn’t.
Me, I always remember, if only for the same reason I’ll always now remember when John Glenn died.
Stuff sinks in a little deeper when it happens on your birthday.
It was called a “shag.” Some prefer “hairstyle” but don’t worry. Either way it’s nothing I ever had. This is not about me. Just about what I like.
There having been only three famous women who ever truly rocked it above and beyond the call of duty, I was just going to post some pictures of them. (I’m sure some of the many men who wore it, David Cassidy, Rod Stewart, et al, touched the souls of those of other persuasions, male and female. If so, peace be upon you. As for me, I am what I am and make no apologies.) But, in doing a little research, I found out my favorite haircut had a specific and pretty inspiring history.
To the extent such things can be spiritually copyrighted, it was invented by a Hollywood hairdresser named Paul McGregor for Jane Fonda’s character in 1971’s Klute. I encourage you to read the full story at the link, where, among other things, I learned that Warren Beatty, much to McGregor’s bemusement, claimed he modeled the lead character in Shampoo after him.
That might be another story for another day when I write about movies that defined the seventies. Klute and Shampoo will definitely be on the short list for consideration.
(And whether that was really where the shag began I don’t profess to know. Not my bailiwick. You got other ideas, feel free to share.)
For now, the part that interests me most is Fonda’s own reaction to the cut. Again, you can read the whole thing at the link, but basically, she saw it as a path to freedom, specifically freedom from her super-controlling husband/director Roger Vadim, who liked for her to wear hairstyles he approved.
I’ll buy that.
And, if so, it was not just mine and a lot of other people’s favorite haircut but maybe one of the more important cultural statements in modern history.
The Fonda who was perpetually cowed by men like Vadim could never have become Hanoi Jane. which, in itself, might have been a blessing. However pure her intentions, she did no worthy cause any favors in the role. And the less said about her eighties-era aerobics empire, the better. (Okay, I’ll say this much: those workout videos were as emblematic of Reagan-era ethics as visiting Hanoi was of counterculture ethics half a generation earlier–once unleashed, Jane got around.)
But she also never could have become, for a decade or so, starting with Klute itself, the bravest actress in Hollywood, a place where genuine bravery is always in short supply. She didn’t keep it up, but, while she was in flight, she went places nobody went before, at least not in big Hollywood productions that reached far outside the art-house circuit.
(For how far outside that circuit a Hollywood star can have an impact, I’ll just repeat something my mother told a woman on the phone who was going on about Jane’s political shortcomings right after we had seen 1978’s California Suite: “Well honey that may be true, but I’ll tell you one thing. She’s forty years old and she came out wearing a bikini and there was not one ounce of fat on her.” In our world, you always got credit for being a trouper. Next to that, being a commie didn’t seem so bad.)
For all the best and worst of it, out of Fonda’s own mouth, we can thank the shag.
Which leaves the real question hanging.
Did she who rocked it first rock it best?
Let me first say that, when it comes to haircuts, “shag” has developed a very fluid definition. So fluid it basically includes every shoulder length hairstyle you can think of, including the most famous post-shag hairstyle of ’em all “The Rachel.”
Nothing against the Rachel, but no matter how many millions donned it, it only ever really belonged to one person–and she hated it. Too much trouble. I’ve expressed my admiration for Jennifer Aniston plenty here before, but the Rachel is not a shag, let alone the shag.
The true shag, as befitting its source and inspiration, was both bold and democratic. If I’m giving it the strictest definition, I’m saying if I didn’t see it in the halls of my high school, circa 1974, it ain’t a shag.
Which brings me to Fonda’s competition.
Until recently (meaning this week) I always considered this competition to consist of one woman and one woman only–a woman who was really famous in England in 1974, but was completely unknown in my rural southern high school until she showed up on Happy Days a few years later.
That would be this woman:
..who did not even cause a buzz in my part of the world when she made the cover of Rolling Stone in January, 1975. Believe me, if anybody had seen this, word would have gotten all the way around:
So if nobody liked Jane, nobody had heard of Suzi, and nobody else wore the cut with sufficient flair to inspire imitation, why were so many girls sporting one? Utility maybe, but, in high school, that ain’t enough. In high school, at least for it to spread like that, somebody has to make it cool.
And, until this week, when I was searching around Pinterest on an unrelated topic, I had somehow completely forgotten who made the shag cool in my part of world in 1974. Then I happened across a few key photos that unlocked the memory gate.
Everybody in my high school knew who this woman was. And everybody liked her. Girls especially. Working class girls most especially. There was a reason she was the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year for 1974. Country girls were her first major audience. And they didn’t just like her music.
For the record: The girls in my part of the world kept on copying Olivia Newton-John’s hairstyles for the rest of the seventies.
Farrah Fawcett’s soon-to-be legendary do?
Never saw one anywhere but on television.
Now, as to who was the absolute best?
Come on. You think I’m gonna make that pick?
I’m country. Sort of.
I’m a lot of things. Sort of.
I ain’t stupid.
Kudos, though, to Suzi, for pretty much sticking with it, decade after decade.
And for always being a reminder that a thing of joy is beautiful forever.
This was almost going to be an update to The Story That Never Ends. Recent inductee Steve Miller’s call for more women artists to join him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has evoked a few responses here and there which makes me hopeful there is a groundswell developing that might ultimately benefit some long overlooked artists.
Then again, with friends like these….
Rolling Stone‘s contribution to the conversation is under a title-only-a-committee-of-future-commissars-could-conceive: “Fifteen Women Who Could Be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” (I think we’re about two elections away from whoever came up with that being put in charge of inducing famine in the northern plains’ states…but I digress.)
No, it doesn’t really name “fifteen women”–rather fifteen female acts (several being groups). But we’ll let that pass.
No, it doesn’t limit itself to redressing the legitimate grievance–that a number of actual “rock and roll women” have been given short shrift. It’s littered, instead, with crit-faves from other forms (Joan Baez from folk, Patsy, Dolly and Loretta from country–all good candidates for my recommended category of “Contemporary Influence” but not really credible as rock and roll performers). But we’ll let that pass.
And it does make a pretty good case for the Shangri-Las. That’s always welcome news around here. Admittedly, this phrase is passing strange: “…they’re perhaps the girl group most beloved of critics and rock fans.” I don’t know about fans, but if critics, who make up most of the nominating committee, loved the Shangri-Las more than any other girl group, they probably would have nominated them some time (as they have the Shirelles, the Supremes, the Ronettes and Martha and the Vandellas, all Hall members, or the Chantels or the Marvelettes, both at least nominated in the past). Of course, they should have done just that, but they haven’t, so that part in an otherwise not entirely incoherent paragraph, is gibberish.
But we’ll let that pass.
Have to, for now, because the very next entry is for Dionne Warwick and it reads like this:
Kicking off her career with the wounded, yet stalwart “Don’t Make Me Over,” the voice of Dionne Warwick defined the sound of R&B. Her delicate phrasing and gospel-inspired power resulted in some of the catchiest songs of the Sixties, including a series of collaborations with Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and she became the first African-American woman to perform for the Queen of England in 1968, the same year that the Bacharach-David composition “Do You Know The Way to San Jose” scaled the charts. Warwick had her ups and downs during the Seventies, but her 1985 smash “That’s What Friends Are For,” which she cut with high-powered pals (and Hall of Fame members) Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder, was one of pop activism’s higher points in an era filled with cause-minded tracks.
I don’t normally do interpretations of cluelessness and Bad English, but since no one can be expected to swallow that whole, I’ll take a shot.
the voice of Dionne Warwick defined the sound of R&B…
Well, no one voice ever “defined the sound of R&B,” not even Fats Domino’s or Little Richard’s or James Brown’s or Otis Redding’s or Aretha Franklin’s. Dionne Warwick came pretty close to defining supper club soul, an honorable, if much derided sub-genre, which she more or less invented and which gave both soul and rock much wider audiences than they otherwise might have expected during the heart of the era when those forms dominated both the charts and whatever part of the culture still had meaning. So why not just say that?
Her delicate phrasing and gospel-inspired power resulted in some of the catchiest songs of the Sixties, including a series of collaborations with Burt Bacharach and Hal David…
Her phrasing and power had nothing to do with how catchy her songs were. The catchiness was provided by the aforementioned writers (Bacharach did the melodies, David the lyrics). She inspired those songs and provided their heartbreak. So why not just say that?
…and she became the first African-American woman to perform for the Queen of England in 1968, the same year that the Bacharach-David composition “Do You Know The Way to San Jose” scaled the charts.
This is what’s called a non sequitur. Actually, since it finishes the sentence begun by the previous phrase, it’s at very least a double non sequitur. It could be a triple non sequitur, since the previous phrase quite possibly contains its own non sequitur (power and phrasing having nothing to do, strictly speaking, with the catchiness for which she was not responsible anyway), but my head already hurts so we’ll leave that alone, too. In any case, the catchiness of her songs has, in this purely linguistic context, nothing to do with her being the first African-American woman to perform for the Queen of England (which, in turn, has nothing to do with why she should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as the same honor might easily have befallen, say, Ella Fitzgerald or Nancy Wilson or any number of others who also sang catchy songs and exemplified the various ways in which African-American women could be supper club classy without coming anywhere near “rock and roll,” lest you think I was kidding when I said Dionne invented the “soul” part of that equation or that I failed to clarify that it’s the precise reason she should have been in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame long since), which, in turn, has nothing to do with “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” coming out the same year (that’s best called a coincidence, I think, though other descriptions might apply as well).
[Note: There was a time, not that long ago, when writing like this in a high school English class would have drawn a bunch of red marks and the student would have been required to write it over. There was a time, not that long ago, when the same thing might have happened at Rolling Stone….But we’ll let that pass.]
Warwick had her ups and downs during the Seventies, but her 1985 smash “That’s What Friends Are For,” which she cut with high-powered pals (and Hall of Fame members) Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder, was one of pop activism’s higher points in an era filled with cause-minded tracks.
Okay, I don’t really know what any of that has to do with Dionne Warwick’s worthiness for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (except that the writer(s) may have had a nagging suspicion they had somehow failed to clinch the case with their previous points of emphasis). But I think what it basically means is that they believe “That’s What Friends Are For,” godawful even by the standards of “cause-minded tracks,” is greater than this…
…one of the greatest records–and greatest vocals–ever waxed.
Cause enough, all by itself, for this…
The Thirteenth Maxim: Learn English so that thou wilt not make thy reader’s teeth grind and, in true non sequitur fashion, bring about the End of Days!.
Before he decided to become a full-time minster in the summer of 1974, my father was a paint contractor. Around 1972, give or take a year, he was hired to paint the interior of one of the Florida Space Coast-area branch offices of a prominent bank that operated within a stone’s throw of the Kennedy Space Center. When it came time to paint the top floor, which was taken up by the bank president’s office, it was decided that the president’s daily business was too important to be interrupted so my dad would just have to paint around him as he worked.
I’m not sure how all the logistics were managed, but the upshot was that, for a week or so, in the early seventies, my dad found himself in daily conversation with a guy whose brother was a mucky-muck at the Atlanta branch of the Federal Reserve.
Dad had the gift of gab in excelsis and it pretty much always elicited one of two responses in strangers: Either they got out of earshot as quickly as possible or they opened up and told him all the secrets they’d been careful to keep from their own mothers.
Maybe because he didn’t really have a choice, once he decided to stay at his desk, the bank president turned out to be the latter.
By the time my dad finished painting the guy’s office they were on sufficiently intimate terms for the gentleman to offer some very timely, in-the-know advice.
First: Build a bomb shelter in the back yard.
Second: In addition to plenty of canned food and ammo, be sure to stock up on the following three items:
Cigarettes. Bonded whiskey. Gold bullion.
In the coming when-not-if age of Economic Chaos, which would surely be upon us before the decade was out, those would be the only three items that had any real value as barter.
Normally, I doubt even my dad, who wasn’t immune to apocalyptic thinking, would have given it much thought. But, before my mother sounded the final voice of reason, he ended up kicking it around for a week or two. At least the bomb-shelter part.
I’m not sure I could blame him.
It’s one thing to have the guy ranting about End Times on the street corner hand you a pamphlet written in invisible ink. It’s another thing altogether to get the inside dope from a guy who’s chewing the fat with his brother at the Fed every day while you’re dipping a roller in the Antique White.
I relate this little story because, unless you were there, the early seventies can seem very long ago and very far away. And, even if you were there, especially if you were as young as I was, they’re really not much closer
The air is like that. It changes. And once it does, you can recall concrete events, hazy conspiracy talk and the smell of paint thinner a lot more readily than the atmosphere in which such memories were formed.
About the only way a story like the one about my dad and the ban president seems anything other than quaint now, when the end (bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!) really is near, is to listen to bands like War and Steely Dan.
Once upon a time, in the age of the Rising, they had the air in common.
* * * *
They had a lot in common besides that.
They rose to prominence in the same place (Los Angeles) at roughly the same time (early to mid-seventies), practiced definitive variants of a rather fluid concept bandied about as “jazz rock” in those days, and, despite neither band being long on marketing, as opposed to musical, personality, each enjoyed remarkably high and similar levels of commercial success:
War: 8 gold or platinum LPs between 1970–79; 12 Top 40 singles, 6 Top 10 singles.
Steely Dan: 8 gold or platinum LPs between 1972–1980; 10 Top 40 singles, 3 Top 10 singles (with two more reaching #11)
That’s a lot of common ground. Especially considering they weren’t really soul mates.
I’ll lay into that in a bit.
But first, I’ll note one really big difference, which is how the usual suspects in the smart set generally felt about them:
Rolling Stone, listing the 500 greatest albums of all time, named three Steely Dan albums, at #145 (Aja), #240 (Can’t Buy a Thrill) and #336 (Pretzel Logic), to one War album, at #444 (The World is a Ghetto).
Robert Christgau gave four of Steely Dan’s studio albums contemporary grades of A- or better. He gave no grades of A- or better to any of War’s studio albums (he did give an A- to their 1976 best of).
Greil Marcus, in his invaluable “Treasure Island” list at the end of Stranded, included three Steely Dan albums. War was represented by one single (“Slippin’ Into Darkness”).
Dave Marsh, in The Rolling Stone Record Guide, was less enthusiastic about Steely Dan, giving three of their first six studio LPs a rating of 4 stars (on a 5 star system). But, though he called them “perhaps the most underrated black band of the Seventies,” he only gave two of War’s first seven studio LPs a grade of 4 stars (none higher), thus, oddly enough, helping insure that they would continue to be what he was purportedly lamenting.
Later, in The Heart of Rock ‘N’ Soul, a personal list of “the greatest 1,001 singles,” Marsh included three singles by each band. To be fair, War’s averaged out considerably higher in his rankings, but, basically, he called it a near-draw in an area where War was demonstrably stronger.
Once you get past these particular iconic writers/institutions, the crit-balance tips even more in Steely Dan’s favor, because few, if any, of the other white boys who have always dominated the basic narrative ever wrote about War at all, while many paid some kind of obeisance to Steely Dan (including their own chapter, by Ken Tucker, in Rolling Stone’s Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, a book in which War is mentioned exactly once–as Eric Burdon’s backup band on “Spill the Wine.”).
And, of course, circles of self-reinforcing logic being made to be unbroken, Steely Dan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, in their fourth year of eligibility. War, eligible since 1996 and nominated three times, has yet to be voted in.
So it goes.
None of this has much to do with how great (or not) either band was/is. I’m not really big on the whole This-Versus-That dynamic. Sure it’s fun to play (Stax or Motown? Beatles or Stones? Prince or Michael? Tweedle-Dee or Tweedle-Dum?) but, really, I never thought those kind of choices said much about anybody, though the desire to make such choices might, and the desire to impose those choices on others definitely does.
So this isn’t a “War or Steely Dan?” argument.
It’s more like a thought experiment on why the critical assessment between two such evenly matched bands has so consistently favored one over the other.
Well, here’s a thought for the experiment.
How about, one group is Black and the other one is White?
Obvious though it is, it could still have consequences. So let’s let it dangle for a bit.
* * * *
Despite their similarities, as the covers of their respective breakthrough albums rather eloquently suggest, these bands were on rather different journeys:
I mean, you wouldn’t need the names on those covers to guess who was street and who was collegiate.
Which doesn’t mean they didn’t like each other personally or, as folks used to say, “dig” each other musically.
I have no idea if the respective members even knew each other and, while I can guess that they heard each other’s records (pretty hard not to), I have only a vague notion of how much, if any, impression those records made one upon the other.
Were they pushing each other, back there in that shared time and space? Inspiring each other? Making sure they at least kept an ear out for what the other was up to?
All of the above?
None of the above?
Hard to tell, beyond hints and allegations (which I’ll also get to in a bit).
A certain part of the truth is accessible, though.
In spirit and fact, War’s music rose from the neighborhoods Steely Dan, in spirit if not fact, cruised after dark in search of whatever might lend an edge to a pretty jaded existence: cool drugs, hot hookers, Jazz Heroes….inspiration. Black America’s traditional relationship to White America in other words.
This might have been no big deal. We are what we are. Nobody can blame the Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen for going to college. But this distinction happened to represent one of the gulfs White America and Black America needed to bridge if we were going to have any sort of future as anything other than the cobbled together, quasi-functional, political-economy-with-borders which was already dancing in the dreams of our conspiracy-of-intent overlords. Something was going to come out of the rubble of the late sixties. Whether it would be a step up or a step back was being fought out on the airwaves as much as anywhere else.
The gap would be bridged or the bridge would be destroyed. Mountains were bound to fall.
Whether they would fall on us was still a question, though, and just because we now know the answer, and know the mountain was made out of manure, doesn’t mean the why of it isn’t still worth exploring.
Unless, of course, we just want to give up.
* * * *
And the first factor in “bridging the gap”–in not giving up–would be what?
Maybe recognition of something elemental?
Like maybe a black band from the actual ghetto could offer a vision as stimulating and challenging as a couple of white guys (Steely Dan was basically Fagen, whose idea of “street” was the classically bohemian one of detesting his parents for moving to the suburbs, Becker, and whoever they felt like hiring at a given moment) who went to college (and, some might argue) never really left, even if Becker did drop out and Fagen, protesting a bust, did refuse to attend graduation?
That’s actually been a hard line to cross with even the most enlightened of the crit-illuminati. I’m not down with Wynton Marsalis much, but he was right to bristle at white critics who called Louis Armstrong (that is, even Louis Armstrong) an “instinctive” genius.
What did that mean? Marsalis wondered. That he didn’t know what he was doing?
Well, yeah. That’s exactly what it meant.
Some of this attitude has hung over the discussion of nearly every black musical genius–or great band–from the dawn of the popular-music-criticism-verging-on-intellectualism that jazz itself finally forced into existence in the twenties and thirties, to the last time I looked at my watch.
Yes, an Armstrong or an Ellington or a Miles Davis eventually gets the last level of respect, even if it’s bound to retain a slightly patronizing air which is frequently reduced to over praising. And, yes, a James Brown or a Jimi Hendrix gets it, too, though it’s usually couched as some form of Resistance-to-the-Man, which, sotto voce, is accepted as being as compulsory (for black people) and as much a product of the subconscious, as, well, instinct.
That is, a band like War could only write/sing/play with such conviction about the world they knew–a world writerly sorts were free to ignore or acknowledge as they saw fit–because it was the world they knew. They were geniuses of observation.
Well, maybe not geniuses, but, you know, really funky and kinda smart about stuff.
The way black people just naturally are.
On the other hand, a band like Steely Dan–i.e., a couple of cool cats like Becker and Fagen who, admittedly could not have been cool in any context except that of the Rock and Roll America they were determined to mock–could imagine things.
They were thinkers by God!
And that narrative became all but officially signed, sealed and delivered, no matter how often Becker and Fagen’s lyrics were clearly rooted in personal experience…
Or how often War’s lyrics were clearly flights of imagination…
And that was before any discussion of the music behind the lyrics, which, in Steely Dan’s case, tended to make the critics who took them to heart from the moment they showed up in the early seventies wax lyrical and, in War’s case, tended to make them wax either not at all or along the lines of Christgau’s jeering “blackstrap-rock.”
Ha, ha, ha.
That’s one side.
And, on the other side, you get, for instance, Tucker in his History of Rock and Roll piece:
“Becker and Fagen had already evolved a procedure that guaranteed a certain amount of tension and surprise, and at its best generated a flow of little pop epiphanies: genre riffs are set off by contrapuntal rhythms…then these clever contrasts are polished and hammered down by rock-intense playing.”
Okay, maybe Lonnie Jordan and Bebe Dickerson and the rest of the men of War were lucky, being spared that sort of praise. But note the active verbs: evolved, generated, polished, hammered down.
So far as I’ve been able to tell, War has never been discussed in similar terms and, even if it happened, it’s unlikely they’d find themselves credited with a phrase like “evolved a procedure.”
That’s reserved for the college kids…by other college kids.
* * * *
Now, none of this would matter if Steely Dan had, at some point, really been a better band. We should all know the dangers of quota-based tokenism by now. But Steely Dan at high tide wasn’t greater than War at high tide.
Simple evidence there…They weren’t greater because nobody was.
Sure, some bands sustained greatness longer. But when War was locked in–roughly from 1971’s All Day Music through the 1976 single, “Summer,” which turned out to be their last big hit, they were a cosmic American band on a level with Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens or the original Byrds.
They just couldn’t get the white boy press to hear it that way.
Absent a “personality” White America’s newly self-appointed intelligentsia could latch onto–a Sly Stone or George Clinton who could serve as an identifiable “Wow man! He’s so-o-o-o great!!” cool kid, whether they liked it or not–they were simply never going to get the level of respect that a similarly anonymous (and, yes, similarly great) white band like Steely Dan could take as a matter of course.
It wasn’t the public, by the way, who failed to “get” it. Along with everything else, War easily crossed race and class barriers on the radio that Steely Dan never got within shouting distance of. (You can go here and scroll down to the War entry for a sense of just how far they reached.)
And they did not do so “instinctively.”
They did not do so by dint of failing to pass the great test of Art. They did not fail to imagine music that made the world larger instead of smaller.
Quite the opposite.
* * * *
Which brings us to the real divide. And the real cost.
Great bands. Same time and place. Some overlap to be sure.
Steely Dan’s famous first single, for instance, sure sounded like somebody in their camp was deeply into the mix of specifically L.A.-style garage funk which War, working their way up from the streets so many out-of-towners wanted to own, already embodied.
And, even if the white boy brigade had trouble hearing it, War’s occasionally mordant wit certainly wasn’t without a tinge of the irony Steely Dan specialized in.
So, in addition to all the stuff I mentioned at the top, they had enough else in common that it’s not too hard to imagine them covering each other’s songs.
Because, all their very real differences aside, sharing a time and space mattered, too, and more because of the time than the space.
In that time–and every space–the spirit of good old rock and roll, lingering in the aftermath of ’68, the year it probably wasn’t yet quite so evident we could never walk away from in the way we had managed to walk away from 1812, 1861, 1929, 1941 was still potent. Which meant that, for as long as Rock and Roll America lasted, Black America and White America were bound to keep invading each other’s space, looking for a way forward.
In that all-important respect, Steely Dan were no pikers.
But War went further.
Steely Dan was finally minimalist, introverted, elliptical. It was hard to imagine them ever being so corny as to name their albums after hit singles.
There’s a fine line, though, between cutting to the heart of the matter and cutting the heart out of the matter. On the first two cuts of their first album–“Do it Again,” and “Dirty Work”–this sounds very much like a line Steely Dan could have walked. Even the rest of the first album’s tendency towards obscurantism-for-its-own-sake didn’t entirely negate the possibility.
By the end of that first LP, though, they weren’t so much walking the wire as clinging to it from below, with one hand slipping.
They more or less held on for the next three albums, more than enough to make them justifiably rich, famous and celebrated. And holding on was an achievement, plenty enough to keep the music alive through the increasingly woozy lite-jazz descendency of their late period and, for the attentive, all the years since.
But one is justified in asking: Where’d the vision go?
Nowhere, really, because, after those first two luminous cuts, it never quite developed into a vision.
Visions, it turned out, were corny, too. Just like naming your albums after hit singles.
So, eventually, the cool kids who had spent their lives cutting themselves off from anything that could be misinterpreted as a little too heart-on-the-sleeve, ended up being the mushiest thing on the radio in a time (the late 70s) when the radio was turning to mush.
To be fair, War faded as well.
Embracing a vision costs, too. Just like avoiding one.
Instead of turning to mush, they simply lost their edge. The sharp blade became a dull blade. Better than late Steely Dan, but hardly what they had been…or what Steely Dan had been.
It’s certainly possible to argue that Steely Dan had it right. If the mountains were going to fall anyway, why not make sure the mountains fell on somebody else? Why not remain on the ridge, in safety? “If you live in this world you’re seeing the change of the guard” for sure. But this ain’t Fort Apache. It’s not as though honor were at stake. I mean, what’s cornier than that? Especially if, by remaining in safety, you might even get yourself proclaimed a visionary.
Plenty have weighed in on the value of Steely Dan’s vision. Ken Tucker’s take is standard, even exemplary, in that respect. And the “vision” is not illegitimate.
But War, greater or lesser by more objective standards, went further in this respect.
Their vision–long unacknowledged by critics who think what really matters is voting reliably Democratic and retweeting #BlackLivesMatter (or whatever hipster movement, prepared to make no difference either, takes its place next summer) to all their friends–was bracketed by their first and last important singles:
Pure L.A from beginning to end….and contextually shocking.
The surfers had sent out a vision of L.A. and it was shooting the curl at Malibu.
The folk rockers had sent out a vision from Laurel Canyon and it was peace, love and long hair, plus harmonies, guitars and groupies.
The Doors had sent out a vision from the Whisky and it was “Father I want to kill you, Mother I want to….a-a-a-a-a-a-g-g-g-g-g-h-h-h-h-h-h!”
War checked in a generation before the rappers and said, quietly and then not so quietly: Hey, it’s our town, too.
And what they really meant, a message that resonated from Compton to Cape Town, from Mexico City to Montgomery, was it’s our world, too...And if you want to do something about it you could start by giving us a little basic respect.
In that sense “down at the beach or a party in town, making love or just riding around,” the most intense action juxtaposed with the most laid back, an insistence that Los Angeles and the world belonged to black people from Compton as much as beach boys (or Beach Boys) from Hawthorne, was at least as revolutionary as “the world is a ghetto,” and also sent the message that revolutionary and “incendiary” were not the same thing.
They didn’t share Steely Dan’s underlying, deeply cynical assumption, one that moved much of SD’s audience even if they never quite bought it themselves: If the world can’t be saved, it’s really a bummer, but let’s all be thankful it can at least it can be endured, one joint at a time
* * * *
War had a white harmonica player but they otherwise consisted of American-born black men who recognized Rock and Roll America’s fundamental challenge: If we’re ever going to get anywhere, Black America and White America are going to have to challenge each other’s space and learn to get along.
Steely Dan, despite their jazz element, were white men committed to protecting the space off to the side which elite White America has always very carefully preserved for itself, a space that has always been most ably defended by folks who are the longest way possible from being “racist.”
The Dan weren’t for invading anybody’s space.
And one could say that their once false assumptions have become the norm. They’ve certainly become the collegiate norm, which is one reason the overlords are pushing “college” on everybody (bilking suckers being the other). Whether they’ve also become true is a question for the future, a future I suspect is looming nearer than we think as we become less and less capable of producing art that can either wound or heal, let alone do both at once.
Whatever future is coming, someone will be left to look back and judge us like all the other fallen empires who, funnily enough, we really had very little in common with.
It will be for them to study the moment when the balance was being tipped and decide who gave a nudge in the direction of the Void and who shouted a warning.
Chances are, if you took the easy way out, greatness won’t really absolve you then.
And if there is no judgment?
Well, there will sure be a lot of Steely Dan fans.
And War, still shouting in the wilderness, won’t make any sense at all.
…Which, until now, I had always considered a much better year for Doom than for Serendipity. If you lived through the times, you know about the Doom. The Serendipity only happened to me personally. It also happened yesterday and went like this:
I posted my Ross MacDonald review.
Later in the day, as I often do, I went poking around my blogroll and visited a few sites, one of which was GreilMarcus.com.
The day’s post over there was a quote from Marcus on the late critic, Paul Nelson, who passed in 2013.
I remembered Nelson’s Rolling Stone obituary for Ross MacDonald, which I hadn’t read since MacDonald (real name Kenneth Millar) passed in 1983.
I decided to look for the obit on the internet as I remembered it being unusually heartfelt.
Never got around to tracking down the obit (I’m sure it must be available), but did come across this, from a lengthy post on MacDonald on the crime writer’s John Connolly’s blog in 2008 (you can access the whole thing here and I’ll add that, based on this, I look forward to checking out Connolly’s own books). The nut is this passage:
One incident in particular stands out for me in Macdonald’s life, perhaps because it represents a point of intersection between Kenneth Millar the writer and Lew Archer, the private detective that Millar created and who seems to have a particular empathy in the novels for the problems of the young. In 1979, Millar was contacted by Paul Nelson, a writer for Rolling Stone magazine. Nelson was concerned about his friend, the singer Warren Zevon, who had recently checked himself out of Pinecrest, a Santa Barbara facility that he’d entered to combat drug and alcohol problems. Millar had once briefly met Zevon in the course of a lunch in Santa Barbara at which Zevon, who idolized Millar and his work, felt that he had embarrassed himself by being over-enthusiastic in front of the writer. Nelson told Millar that Zevon was in bad shape. Nobody could convince him to return to Pinecrest, but Nelson believed that Zevon might listen to Millar if Millar was prepared to take the time to talk to him.
That afternoon, the doorbell rang at Zevon’s house. When Zevon opened the door, Kenneth Millar was standing there, like Lew Archer in the flesh come to deal with a troubled young soul. Millar stayed with Zevon for the afternoon, talking about music, telling him the names of the plants in Zevon’s garden, listening, offering what advice and understanding he could. Then he left, and Zevon never saw him again. Later, Zevon wrote to Millar to thank him for his intervention, describing him as “not only the finest novelist but the personification of the noblest qualities of your work.” Zevon dedicated his 1980 album, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, to “Ken Millar, il migliore fabbro.“
It was pretty well known that Zevon was big MacDonald fan (he had better taste in novelists than in television hosts). But I don’t remember seeing this anecdote before. If it was in that obit, I didn’t recall it.
Naturally, it got me wondering just how directly MacDonald might have otherwise affected Zevon’s work, either through artistic influence or that personal intervention. And, naturally, this came straight to the top of the list (no idea if it was specifically about Pinecrest, though I wouldn’t be surprised):
But, upon further reflection, it became pretty obvious that Zevon had already written his great Ross MacDonald song a few years before the above incident. The one where he got Carl Wilson to sing background.
See. Really. It all fits. This is clearly a key element in my ever-developing Theory of Everything.
It clearly all fits, even though (or maybe especially because) just about the pithiest thing Ken Millar, writing as Ross MacDonald, ever had Lew Archer say was that rock and roll was music for civilizations to decline by (which is every bit as pithy as the more famous “there’s nothing wrong with California a rise in the ocean level wouldn’t cure,” or even Zevon’s own, “I predict this motel will be standing until I pay my bill.”)
I know it fits, too. I really do.
I’m just still working on figuring out exactly how. Can’t wait to find out whether I’ll be allowed to tell.