…Bob Dylan’s recorded the sequel to “Desolation Row”…minus the optimism. I know plenty of people who come here will already know about it, but some won’t and I sure wouldn’t want anyone to miss it. It will probably take more years than the world has left to plumb the lyrics, but the sound is all you really need to know everything words could possibly convey and that sound doesn’t let up from first note to last. Listen now, before Greil Marcus has a chance to tell us what it all means!
Just on first listen, it was the Warren Zevon/Carl Wilson and Stevie Nicks references that got to me….maybe because I once tried to write a song that began, “Heard something yesterday on ninety-eight point two/Was it ‘Gold Dust Woman’ that came crawling through?/Well, the others heard Stevie, but I heard you/Singing like we used to.”
I gave up on finishing it when I realized FM stations don’t end in even numbers and AM stations don’t start until long after 98. I know it was a good verse, though, because I hadn’t thought of it in more than thirty years and it came back to me today in an instant…maybe because I’m getting ready to pitch the novel I finally wrote about the two girls the lyric was about (I forgot the lyric but I never could shake them, no matter how many times their names changed).
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is semi-notorious for handling inductions one of a few ways: a Hall insider (like Seven Van Zandt) or existing Hall of Famer (like anybody) or combination of both (like Bruce Springsteen) does the honors. Or else a star of the moment (Jewel inducted Brenda Lee for instance) is shoved into the spot for ratings. After the early, obvious years, rarely has the choice of inductor made real historical sense.
Tonight there will be an exception when Susanna Hoffs, the only thing the sixties were missing and the principal lead singer of Rock and Roll America’s last great harmony group, inducts the Zombies.
Hoffs proved her Zombies’ bona fides covering their “Care of Cell #44” on the first Sid n’ Susie album. But the spiritual connection was legit long before that:
Hope she gets to sing with them. It’s so logical I can’t imagine even the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame objecting.
Then again, they didn’t exactly ask Stevie Nicks or Linda Ronstadt to induct Brenda Lee, did they?
I just wanted to alert our little Shangri-Las community, which seems to be growing, to Greil Marcus’s Real Life Top Ten of Dec. 26, 2018 .
For those who don’t care to give Rolling Stone (or its advertisers) a visit, here’s the entry in full:
6. “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2019 Inductees.” The Zombies: two effectively Beatle-style Top 10 hits in 1965 (think of “She’s Not There” and “No Reply” — which one disappears in the face of the other?) and another one, boring even if the radio loves it, four years later. But when the Shangri-Las — “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” “Leader of the Pack,” “Give Him a Great Big Kiss,” “Out in the Streets” and “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” — three of them Top Ten in 1964 and 1965, one of them Number One, all of them not merely hits, but iconic — have never been nominated, let alone voted in, how can this mean anything at all? I don’t know if Janet Jackson or Def Leppard would agree, but I’d bet Stevie Nicks and Bryan Ferry would.
Marcus has pitched the Shangs’ for the Hall of Fame before….He’s still a big name so this is not a small thing. I’ve taken issue with him on this and other subjects before, but I hope he keeps it up because he is hitting on the thing that matters, which is how deep the records struck….and still strike.
For the reasons why? Well that’s why I’m here….
This is one of a dozen or so that could have been added to Marcus’ list as long as you replace “iconic” with “still grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go.” Even more than the epic vocal and arrangement, it’s the Oh my God, what have I done? in the fade that lifts it to the highest plane and makes it yet another unsolvable mystery. What has she done, exactly? Should I listen again, and see if I can figure it out this time?
It opens the song up into eternity just when it should be closing down.
Jay and the Americans never thought of that.
[NOTE: I’m not as down on the Zombies as Marcus is…as will be revealed shortly in another forum! And to be fair, they might agree with him. Mary Weiss has mentioned touring with them in interviews and is a big admirer. I wouldn’t be surprised if the feeling was mutual.]
Merry Christmas everybody! i like my hair metal straight with no arty pretensions. In the wake of punk, especially, hair metal bands had one refreshing quality. They made no bones about being in it for the groupies. About half of this soars and the rest doesn’t sink so low that it amounts to more than a minor distraction.
9) David Bowie: Hunky Dory (1971)
I don’t really have a go-to David Bowie album but, if I did, this early entry might fit the bill. The man could write hooks and, over the course of a mere album (especially a good one from when he was giving everything he had to put himself over), his voice doesn’t wear thin. Plus, with “Changes” he was already signalling how far he could take fake naivete, which was only as far as it could go.
8) Gary Lewis & the Playboys: The Complete Liberty Singles (2009)
What an aesthetic! A plastic concept were Gary and the boys to be sure…but they made some fine pop records from their earliest days. And, as I had not noticed on a previous listen to two, Gary kept getting better as the sixties and his popularity waned in unison. This lays out the whole story so, along with stalwarts like “Just My Style” and “Little Miss Go-Go” you get an extra disc’s worth of lost sixties’ pop that reminds you just how good you had to be in those days to not get lost . Then there’s genuinely weird-but-catchy stuff like “I Saw Elvis Presley Last Night” which Lewis apparently wrote after seeing Elvis the night before.
7) Bob Dylan: Live 1964 Concert at Philharmonic Hall, The Bootleg Series Vol. 6 (2004)
This has musical value. It’s a good, typical concert from Dylan’s folkie phase. The big difference is that it’s near the end–the moment just before the Voice of His Generation stabbed his original audience in the eye by going Rock and Roll.
Here, Dylan the master showman has his New York audience eating out of his hand, hanging on every sung or spoken word. You can still hear and feel the spell he cast. The highlight comes at the top of the second disc, right after he’s returned from the intermission to do his nine hundredth great version of “Talkin’ World War III Blues.”
This is the one where he mocks the Shangri-Las and Martha and the Vandellas and his audience laughs right along.
Or is it the about-to-be-left-behind audience he’s mocking?
People argue about this, but it’s worth remembering that when the Voice of His Generation wanted to name-check “inauthentic” pop stars he had previously tended to use Fabian, the son of a Philly beat cop, who, like Martha Reeves and Mary Weiss, had fought his way out of tougher circumstances–and tougher neighborhoods–than Robert Zimmerman’s.
Right after that Joan Baez comes on and kills the buzz.
There’s no album that better explains the anger some of Dylan’s audience felt when he “betrayed” them a few months later (first at Newport, then all over the world). Listening to this, there is no reason to believe the voice of their generation would ever be anything but completely at one with them.
6) Mary Wells:Looking Back 1961 – 1964 (1993)
Invaluable set from Motown’s first big solo star. “My Guy” wasn’t all that typical of her style, but it shows just how many directions she might have taken had she not made the fateful decision to become the first Motown star to walk away. I don’t know if she needs a two-disc set, but she certainly needs more than one. One of history’s great “what-ifs” sure, but there’s more than enough here to justify a bigger place in the pantheon, at Motown and elsewhere.
5) War:Outlaw (1982)
The greatest band of the 70s was mostly a spent force by the time this came out. But the two strongest tracks, “Outlaw” and “Cinco de Mayo” were on a par with their best, and you can hear bits and pieces elsewhere of what might have been a new vision, had they still been young and hungry.
4) Jr. Walker and the All Stars:Nothin’ But Soul, The Singles 1962-1983 (1994)
A great journey through the party funk of the mid-sixties, backed up with Junior’s plaintive vocals once somebody figured out his ragged-but-right timbre could work on ballads. Twenty years worth of never losing what he had, with the highlight being perhaps Motown’s great lost single. Tell me again why he’s not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
3) Lynyrd Skynyrd:Nuthin’ Fancy (1975)
There are people who still think this–the second greatest band of the 70s third LP–is their weakest. If that’s true, it’s a measure of just how great they were. There weren’t ten bands in the decade who made one as good. And not one where the lead singer would start off an album by writing a fierce ode to gun control and, without taking a breath, dream of shooting down his “Cheatin’ Woman” exactly one track later.
2) Fats Domino:The Fats Domino Jukebox (2002)
I finally broke down and bought a single disc of Fats’ best on CD. The old two record set from Imperial is still the best “short” compilation but this does a nice job of getting to the highlights, beginning with the true dawn of rock ‘n’ roll. Perhaps because I’ve been doing some side projects (more word soon!) that turn a strong spotlight on rock and roll’s first decade, the most intriguing track this time around was “The Valley of Tears” a straight country record from 1957 which went top twenty pop and #2 R&B and represented everything Nashville feared might be riding over the hill if they didn’t get the white rock and rollers under control. They shut down crossover within a year, even if it meant telling country stations not to play Elvis and the Everly Brothers. And that’s exactly what it meant. These days, and not coincidentally, country, pop and r&b are all dead things. Except when you reach back.
1) Various Artists:A Very Special Christmas (1987)
One of the great rock and roll Christmas albums. At what is probably the low point, Bon Jovi pulls off a credible “Back Door Santa.” Elsewhere, everyone from RUN-DMC to Bono to Alison Moyet to (gasp) Sting go to the limit. And there are tracks that go beyond the limit: Bruce Springsteen (live, where’s he’s always best) managing a version of “Merry Christmas Baby” that escapes the long shadows of Charles Brown’s original melancholy and Elvis Presley’s cataclysmic transformation to inject an improbably merry vibe that’s just as valid; John Mellencamp’s re-orienting “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” to an Indiana farmhouse; Bryan Adams’ blasting through “Run, Run Rudolph”; and, to close things down, Stevie Nicks, who believes in witchcraft if she believes in anything, giving a definitive reading of “Silent Night,” the stateliest devotional hymn on earth, proving yet again that God will always move in a mysterious way.
Every year I try to come up with a slightly different spin on the Hall. My basic objections/recommendations remain the same as they have been for at least twenty years:
A veteran’s committee is needed to address important acts from the fifties and sixties who have been overlooked.
A category for contemporary influence is needed so that performers who do not fit even the broadest definition of “rock and roll” (Joan Baez is the current poster child) can be acknowledged without knocking others out of a spot.
More transparency, please, for both the nominating and voting processes!
These simple fixes would go a long way towards keeping the Hall from being roiled in needless controversy year after year, and drifting ever further from what should be its meaningful mission of helping preserve the legacy of the rock and roll era which is now at least a generation behind us. Since these fixes are simple, logical and easily implemented, I expect them to happen on the other side of the Apocalypse.
Lowering my sights a bit, my new hope is that each year will not add to the personal list which was inagurated last year with Bon Jovi‘s induction: Acts who have never made a record I loved.
This year, add Radiohead to the club. To be fair, I’ve never listened to much of their music. To be even more fair, what I have listened to hasn’t left me with any desire to do a deep dive.
There were seven inductees this year, though (with possible non-performer additions to come), so I should probably be thankful there was only one. As for the rest:
From the “it only takes one” category:
From the “It only takes a few” category:
The Zombies (and can we please move on to the far more deserving Manfred Mann now?)
Janet Jackson (I liked a lot of her records, but only loved a few)
Def Leppard (ditto)
And the “maybe a little more than that” club:
Roxy Music (Mood music, and, I admit, an unusual mood for me. But when I’m there, nothing else works quite as well….Whether they should be forgiven for having such a mass influence on trance music is a close call. I tend to forgive them more readily than, say, Kraftwerk, who were also on the ballot this year.)
Stevie Nicks I’m not a fan of putting people in twice and some of the few who most deserve a double-induction (Smokey Robinson, Carole King) are only in once. Still, Stevie is the first woman to be inducted twice and, as the only woman to ever have a major solo career while remaining part of an important band, I’m happy this breakthrough went to her. As I always say, when there’s only one of something, there’s a reason.
Tusk was the third album released by what had already become the most famous version of Fleetwood Mac. The history is well known but bears repeating.
The group started out in the mid to late sixties as a first rate English blues rock outfit, distinguished from dozens of others, and even most of the better ones, by Peter Green’s scintillating guitar, the rock solid rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie and some better than usual songwriting.
With Green’s departure, the early seventies’ version of the band brought on several new members–Christine McVie (née Perfect) and Bob Welch preeminent among them–and gravitated towards a mellower soul-pop sound.
The first version had kicked up some serious dust. The second version hung around.
Eventually it, too, fell apart and Fleetwood found himself in recruiting mode again.
This time, he happened on an up and coming guitarist and vocalist named Lindsey Buckingham, who already had a record out with his girlfriend, Stevie Nicks. Fleetwood and the band offered Buckingham a job. He said he would take it but only if his girlfriend could join too.
There was a big meeting–laughable in hindsight–to determine whether the two women could get along.
In the years to come, the two women would be just about the only ones who got along. But what the new Fleetwood Mac did over the next four-and-a-half years, as they were cutting each other to shreds, was remarkable by any standard.
The new unit’s first album, Fleetwood Mac, was released in 1975 and to date has sold seven million copies in the U.S. alone. Their next album, Rumours, made that, and nearly everything else released in the decade, look like chump change.
Both albums deserved their status as massive sellers and era-defining records. Good thing, because by the time they were done, Stevie Nicks was no longer Lindsey Buckingham’s girlfriend and Christine McVie was no longer John McVie’s wife.
It seemed they had taken sexual politics as far as it could go–further than the Mamas & the Papas, who had shattered under similar strains in the sixties and left a legacy in the arena other romantically entwined male/female outfits (Jefferson Airplane, Abba, Fifth Dimension) who had gotten in between couldn’t touch.
On Rumours, Buckingham and Nicks in particular, has blasted past all that, answering each others insults face to face and voice to voice on the album, the radio, and stages all over the world.
There really should have been nowhere to go.
But selling albums in the tens of millions, as opposed to mere millions, brought a whole new perspective.
How could they break that up?
And, after Packing up, shacking up’s all you want to do and Players only love you when they’re playing, how could they not break it up?
A million dollars, a studio built especially for the ask, and many obsessive months later, Tusk was the answer. One which, in effect, bound them together forever, and from which they would never recover.
“Over & Over”–Gently, gently, Christine the Bystander leads us into the house of horrors. It’s placement at the top of the album might have been designed to mock the jump-start openers on their previous two albums. The mood Lindsey the Boyfriend was in, I don’t doubt such placement was deliberate. Lindsey the Producer was savvy enough, though, to give this the full late-sixties Beach Boys vibe and Lindsey the Guitarist was sensitive enough to provide a gorgeous fade that evokes a clear blue mountain lake, glimpsed through a high window.
“The Ledge”–Lindsey the (jilted) Boyfriend puts the lines You can love me baby but you can’t walk out and six feet under in the same song. He didn’t put them next to each other, but he was singing this one himself, so there’s no mistaking the meaning, which would have been the same if he had just sung the lyrics to “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
“Think About Me”–Wait, we better put a hit single on here somewhere. Let’s throw it to Christine the Bystander! And Christine delivers, except, as hit singles go, Baby once in a while, think about me is not Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow or Over my head and it sure feels nice. Top twenty sure, but by this time that was counted a flop. They didn’t play it in concert for twenty-five years. If you listen close, you can hear the stinger in the lyric. That part about not holding you down and maybe that’s why you’re around.
“Save Me a Place”–Lindsey the (jilted) Boyfriend turns philosophical. He’ll come running. He promises. If you’ll love him. If you don’t, it’s all on you, because he needs to be amazed.
“Sara”–Stevie the Ex is finally allowed to get a word in edgewise and the very first thing out of her mouth is Wait a minute baby...Then she pretends to be the someone else he wanted her to be while she’s explaining how he tricked her into thinking he was the someone else she wanted him to be. Somebody understood. It went Top Ten and became the album’s only radio staple. Must have been the part about drowning….in the sea of love….where everyone….would love….to drown. The sentiment was sure fire. It had worked for Phil Phillips and Joe Simon in times past. But the hesitations were new. Very 1979.
“What Makes You Think You’re the One”–Something struck deep. Lindsey the Boyfriend is starting to hone his attack. It’s not entirely clear that the attack will be limited to words. By the end, it sounds like he’s thrown every dart he can get his hands (or tongue) on at the Stevie the Ex’s back. And if she doesn’t turn around? What then?
“Storms”–Or worse, what if she turns around and sings a lullaby? What if it’s impossibly lovely and wounded, the sound of a broken flower? What if it ends with I have always…been a storm. Watch out, she’s hesitating again.
“That’s All For Everyone”–I spent a lot of years not looking at the titles on this album so I always heard Last call for everyone. Last call for me. And that’s still what the voice says, lyric sheet be damned. Already the album is veering towards things words either can’t say or can say but better not.
“Not That Funny”–And just in time, too, since this is the sound of a man breaking into his ex’s house and telling her to stop making him do it while he punches her in the face, and the way he sings don-n-n-n’t bla-a-a-me me-e-e hardly belies the air of menace.
“Sisters of the Moon”–At which point Stevie the Ex, bound to think this might have something to do with her, is forced to turn herself into a ghost who walks through walls. When she gets to the next room, she turns and watches her temporal body from a distance, not really wanting to look, but not daring to go too far either. There is serious competition, but arguably her greatest side. The key is how she makes In-tense si-lence sound like in-tense violence…Lindsey the Producer’s grasp of the mood helps as does Lindsey the Guitarist’s blistering fade.
“Angel”–The morning after: Peace, and a powerful, lilting suggestion that what came before was just an ugly dream….or a suppressed memory. (And I’ll bet if Lindsey the (jilted) Boyfriend had known there would one day be compact discs and streaming services that obliterated side breaks, Lindsey the Producer would never in a million years have granted Stevie the Ex two songs in a row.)
“That’s Enough For Me”–Lindsey the (jilted) Boyfriend hears what he did the night before transmuted into something he can’t recognize or understand. He senses this might give him an edge and swears it’s all he ever wanted! Damn convincing, too.
“Brown Eyes”–Clearly personal, but because Christine the Bystander, who’s got problems of her own, isn’t involved in the main drama, she has to bury her personality under an abstract vocal, which sounds like it’s coming from that room where Stevie’s ghost wandered. Only Christine can’t walk through walls, which means she can’t leave.
“Never Make Me Cry”–Hear what I mean?
“I Know I’m Not Wrong”–Don-n-n-t bla-a-a-me me. Lindsey the (jilted) Boyfriend cries. You can see him clinching his fists, staring at them, wondering what they might be capable of if somebody else doesn’t take the blame very, very soon.
“Honey Hi”–Christine the Bystander still can’t get out of that room because she still can’t walk through walls. She’s started to sound more like a ghost though.
“Beautiful Child”–The memories are now so suppressed Stevie the Ex has reverted all the way to childhood.
“Walk a Thin Line”–Lindsey, knowing he will never again be the Boyfriend, that being the Producer and the Guitarist will never again mean as much as they did before, perhaps horrified by what he has done or thought of doing, perhaps torn apart by the ex’s retreat into a vocal beauty so pure he ca never hope to comprehend it, walks the thin line between loading every chamber and playing Russian Roulette. No one was listenin’….
“Tusk”–The sound of the fantasy rape that takes place when the Boyfriend, jilted or otherwise, has had enough! Recorded live at Dodger Stadium, with the USC Trojan band accompanying. Top Ten in the moment. Kept off my radio ever since by those very forces that put so much effort into making it easy for us to assume they don’t know what they’re doing.
“Never Forget”–None of this ever happened. It’s really just an album folks. Listen again. Right now. You’ll see.
There are no true oldies stations in my market anymore. The last one changed formats more than a decade ago. What’s left is the Hank format and a Classic Rock Formula which has been reshaped from hard-rock-all-the-time (white except for Jimi Hendrix) to a mix of hard rock (white….except for Jimi Hendrix), hard pop rock (all white), a little easy listening (ditto), plus, for the sake of diversity, “Superstition” and “Low Rider.”
It’s not exactly a true re-creation of how hit-oriented radio worked in the sixties and seventies, but it is an accurate reflection of these focus-grouped times.
Usually, I just listen to the gasbags on talk radio who at least keep me up with the news. (And represent the last, best hope Never Trumpers have of taking their nemesis down, even if they don’t know it and would never admit it if they did. Believe me, when you’re in the Byzantine spot Robert Mueller’s in, a place where so many corrupt riddles are wrapped inside so many diseased enigmas your own best hope of staying out of jail is the pubic’s inability to keep up, you couldn’t hope for better than to have Sean Hannity and Mark Levin representing the other side).
But, now and again, when the gasbags either overwhelm me or go to commercial once too often, I still pull up the Classic Hits station in my car.
I had missed a promo-promised Go-Go’s/Queen segue earlier in the day, but now I hit the button just as this one started…and, once it starts, I never change the station…
Strange thing, though. This time, all I could think about while the song was playing (and I was shouting every word–have I ever mentioned that I harmonize with Christine McVie and Lindsey Buckingham like a long lost sibling who shared a mother with one and a father with the other?…Or that I can’t be the first person to have considered the possibility that everyone can do this?)–was how, when the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign adopted “Don’t Stop” as the theme song and wanted Fleetwood Mac to re-unite and play it for some big occasion (the Convention? Election Night? the Inaugural?…the memory hazes, but, for my purposes here, it only matters that they said yes), Buckingham at first refused.
He gave in only when Stevie Nicks called him up and said If you take this away from me, I’ll never speak to you again.)
Don’t mind me. I get peculiar thoughts some times.
Because while all that was running through my head (without my thrush-like throat fluffing a note) I also started wondering if Oo-o-o-hh, don’t you look back might be a sentiment tantamount to civilizational suicide. Didn’t somebody say something once about those who don’t learn from the past being doomed to, etc., etc., etc.?
And wouldn’t not learning from the past you never look back to just about define Bill Clinton’s life and legacy? (Be sure you read Thomas Frank’s blind-squirrel-finds-a-nut article at the link, especially if you’ve forgotten, or never admitted, how much damage Clinton did to liberalism, damage that is likely to remain irreparable…..And, like I said, don’t mind me.)
Boy was I depressed.
Not even remembering how the ghost version of “Don’t Stop” had long since forced me to ponder whether Christine McVie having just possibly conceived the song as pure irony should be one of my heart-of-the-universe questions–how, with the slightest shift of timbre, she transformed don’t look back from the proverbial fear that something might be gaining on you to an anthem worthy of an American presidential campaign, where never a discouraging word must be heard–allowed me to shake the feeling the whole world has been had all over again every time this song plays on the radio and one of us sings along in perfect harmony without missing a note or a nuance.
Then the radio went straight into this…
…which was so much about nothing (a Curfew Riot–which sounds like the title of a Monty Python skit) it ended up being about everything. Including now.
Paranoia strikes deep….
And even though it had been too long since I heard it (and though nothing could ever match the impact of singing it, in perfect harmony–with five kids who weren’t conversant with English, or even born, when it was released–under the eaves of the library at Kent State in 1998) for me to get every note, or even every word, right, I thought…well this radio still speaks in mysterious ways some times, its wonders to perform.
After that, Tom Petty reminding me I don’t have the live like a refugee, usually the highlight of any paranoiac’s day, felt as comfortable as an old shoe.
Then “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” came on and I remembered how talk radio came to be an option in the first place.
Because the Empire planned it that way….That’s how.
Now go back to bed and leave me alone you damned ol’ Politics.
I also left off b-sides that were hits (think Ricky Nelson’s “Helly Mary Lou,” which definitely would have been here otherwise, or Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” which might have been). I also limited myself to one record per artist (else the Shangri-Las would have three or four).
And because I already covered the true obscurities, these are all by successful artists (as opposed to one-hit wonders)–most people know the acts, even if they don’t know the records.
What’s left is still a weird and beautiful secret history of rock and roll. If these were the biggest/best hits these acts ever had, the world would not have been the worse for it.
1959–“What About Us” (A-side: “Run Red Run”) The Coasters
The Coasters/Robins were not exactly slouches in the B-side department themselves. I picked this one because, in combo with “Run Red Run” it’s an early example of the concept single, which a lot of crit-illuminati types think couldn’t possibly have existed before “Strawberry Fields” or, at the very outside, “Don’t Worry Baby.”
1964–“Silence is Golden” (A-Side: “Rag Doll”) The 4 Seasons
I first heard this on a Seasons’ comp in the late seventies. I remember being shocked–I don’t think benumbed is too strong a word–to learn it was never promoted as a single (i.e., that there had once been a world where this could be relegated to a B-side because the A-side was only “Rag Doll”…and that, little more than a decade later, such a world no longer existed). Then I found out it had been a hit for an English group called the Tremeloes. Then I heard the Tremeloes’ version. Good God.
1966–“I’m Not Like Everybody Else” (A-Side: “Sunny Afternoon”) The Kinks
This is in the conversation for the greatest record the Kinks ever made. If the conversation is with me, it’s not even a conversation. And yes, I’m aware of the extreme competition.
1967–“I’ll Never Learn” (A-Side: “Sweet Sounds of Summer”) The Shangri-Las
Speaking of being shocked and benumbed…The record I think of first when I think of all that’s been lost in the fifty years since. Mainly the future that never arrived…and I don’t just mean Mary Weiss’s career.
1967–“I’ll Turn to Stone” (A-Side: “7-Rooms of Gloom”) The Four Tops
No way a handy ten of epic B-Sides would be complete without Motown, but this is a new discovery for me. I came across it when I was researching a possible post on co-writer R. Dean Taylor. To think: “7-Rooms of Gloom” as the upbeat, radio-ready side! (And FWIW it replaced the Go-Go’s “Surfing and Spying” which is the proof that Charlotte Caffey was a walking encyclopedia of surf guitar and sadly missed. Like I said, ten is a measly number.)
1968–“Daddy Rollin’ (In Your Arms)” (A-Side: “Abraham, Martin and John”) Dion
I love “Abraham, Martin and John” unreservedly. But I can only imagine the shock that must have occurred to anyone who turned it over in 1968. It’s still shocking.
1969–“Making Love (At the Dark End of the Street)” (A-Side: “Snatching It Back”) Clarence Carter
A sermon on sex. Guilt-free, too. Until the end. Starts funny as Richard Pryor. Ends deep as James Carr.
1973–“Something” (A-Side: James’ nine hundredth version of “Think,” all necessary.) James Brown
George Harrison’s favorite version….of hundreds.
1977–“Silver Springs” (A-Side: “Go Your Own Way”) Fleetwood Mac
Left off Rumours as a casualty of the permanent psychodrama that was Buckingham/Nicks. Else they just didn’t have room (hahahahaha!). Restored to various versions of the album in the CD-era, with stunning outtakes added on the multi-disc release. The rare song left off a classic album which, when restored to its original running order (at the top of the second side), doesn’t just improve the album but force-multiplies its power.
1981–“Psycho” (A-Side: “Sweet Dreams.” What else?) Elvis Costello and the Attractions
I was gonna go with Tanya Tucker’s “No Man’s Land,” which is scarier, but I decided to keep this an all rock and roll affair.
Love the cheering at the end. What else should one do after “Mama why don’t you get up?”
This was actually from a week or so back, but, hey, my blog, my rules. I’m not above toying with the time/space continuum.
Thus…a week or so back….
I was resetting my radio channels after I had an airbag recall replacement in my car and left the new setting on a local channel that plays semi-offbeat music from yesteryear. Most of the stuff is by famous artists, but not necessarily the familiar hits. My internet being out a day or two later, I found myself cruising to the local college theater one evening on a work night to catch When Harry Met Sally, which I had never seen on the big screen (it was worth it…I almost posted about that).
And, in the new dark, I heard this…and I kept thinking, if it’s her, it can’t be from her solo career or her post-Tusk Fleetwood Mac career. Leaving what? An outtake? Thought I’d heard all those too.
Well, I couldn’t find a parking space in time to make the 7:00 show, which meant I had a chance to stop and write down a piece of the lyrics, making it easy enough to find on the net when I got home. Ah, yes, Buckingham Nicks. How could I have forgotten!
I might not have considered it more than a nice find–another fine piece of Stevie’s secret career (a subject that’s probably worth its own post some day) to be tucked away for a rainy day.
Except when 9:00 rolled around, my internet still wasn’t working, so I headed back to the college to catch the 10:00 showing (there’s always plenty of parking that late, after class lets out), and on the way, on the same station, I ran into this….which I’ve never heard on the radio anywhere….
…which, in addition to reminding me of how much Elvis Costello used to hate Stevie Nicks (maybe not as much as he hated Linda Ronstadt, but there was definitely a theme there…if Stevie had dared to cover a few his songs, the gap would have closed in an eye-blink, though of course he would not have failed to cash the royalty check), and how great he was once upon a time, also set me to wondering how different either career might have been if these records had been the hits they deserved to be.
I kept the station tuned all week, waiting for another revelation.
No such luck.
This evening, on the way to the grocery store, I switched back to Classic Rock. Nothing revelatory there, either, but at least I could sing along. I even got to use my Freddie Mercury voice (don’t worry folks, unless the Security State has my car bugged, no one will ever hear my Freddie Mercury voice).
Which made me think about when Dave Marsh, expecting to be taken seriously, called Queen “fascist rock.” I think that meant he either didn’t like them or just couldn’t keep Pauline Kael and Greil Marcus out of his head, kind of a crit-illuminati version of the way Norman Bates couldn’t keep his mother out of his head.
Calling anyone you didn’t like a fascist was very big back then.
The lesson as always: The seventies drove people crazy.
I’m just thankful such things never, ever happen now.
(NOTE: I’ve been working on this one for a while and now present it as, I believe, the most in-depth appreciation of Brenda Lee that exists anywhere. If, by chance, that’s true, she deserves for somebody to beat it every day from now on.)
First my story….
Back in the days when I measured my life in large part by the discovery of voices, I used to hit the good local record store every Friday after work the way other people hit bars, restaurants or movie theaters. There was a process, almost sacred. It differed from ritual only in that it involved making decisions. Lots of decisions. I like all kinds of music. Back in the days of good record stores in medium-sized towns, there were literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of records (later CDs) I wanted to hear.
I emphasize the word “hear” because, for me, that was always the point: the actual listening experience. I didn’t care about “collecting,” never cared whether a record or disc had any qualities beyond what I was actually going to hear when I put it on the appropriate playing device. I’m not saying I was never influenced by any other factor (I love album covers for all kinds of reasons…and I’m hardly averse to a bargain), but when the last measure was being counted, on a Friday night or any other time, where I put my twenty or thirty or, at a rare extreme, fifty bucks was completely controlled by what I wanted to hear when I got home that night. If that makes me sound like a junkie, well, I can see where there’s a certain obsessional affinity. (It’s one reason I never took drugs. I recognized my vulnerabilities.)
One day in the early nineties, I came home with this:
I didn’t think it was any big deal. I just thought it was time. I knew who Brenda Lee was, and by that I mean I was certain I knew who Brenda Lee was. I was born in 1960, in the south. There was no way to avoid knowing who Brenda Lee was in that time and place, and, really, no way to avoid being certain that you knew.
Okay, I didn’t really know too many of her songs. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” was a holiday perennial. “I’m Sorry” and “Sweet Nothin’s” showed up on an oldies’ station once in a while. I even had one of her greatest hits albums on vinyl. This one as it happened:
I hadn’t bought it, just acquired it in one of those stacks of records that record junkies acquire here and there (people are forever giving away their old albums, even to this day…the only ones you never end up with are the ones you were certain you would that invariably contain that one cherished item you can never find anywhere else…oh, wait, I think I may have just gotten this confused with life).
I had listened to it. Nothing went on the shelf without getting a spin. For whatever reason it hadn’t made an impression. You listen to enough records and some of them get by you. That one got by me, maybe because I was certain I knew Brenda Lee so I knew I only had to listen with half an ear.
I liked her, of course. Who didn’t? She was big. She had a lot of hits in an era when that was hard to do without being good (though, of course, it wasn’t impossible…I’ll avoid naming names).
So I knew all that when I brought that 2-CD package home on a Friday night around 1994 or so. I also knew–was certain I knew–where Brenda Lee fit. She was one of those good singers from the fifties/early sixties. One of those singers like Gene Pitney or Brook Benton or Bobby Darin who made really good records and earned a certain level of respect that went so far and no further.
By which I mean I knew–was certain–that she wasn’t important. Not truly important. Not to people like me. She was too professional. Too inside the lines. Too cautious. Maybe even too slick.
Now don’t get this wrong. I expected to enjoy the Anthology, was very much looking forward to hearing it. I even thought–took it for granted really–that I would be moved by a previously unheard track or two, that there would be a few new favorites to absorb into my personal pantheon. There almost always were and just because I had Brenda Lee pegged, didn’t mean I didn’t respect her. I mean, it was the nineties. Rock and roll was dead as a door nail (just like it had first been pronounced in the days when Brenda was having her first hits with her being, by some people’s lights, exhibit A…except this time it was real, because, among other things, it was happening to me, and, of course, I turned out to have the kind of cursed luck that means when it happened to me it really, really happened!), and even if it somehow wasn’t, I still knew not to take a sixties-era hit maker for granted because the stuff they had made sound so easy had long since proved to be anything but. Hey, why do you think those Friday night decisions in the record store were so hard? How do you think I had gotten twenty years into my record buying life without having a decent Brenda Lee collection on my ever-burgeoning shelves? A treasury of riches, that’s how. Always a little more gold to mine. Just keep digging.
So the digging had finally gotten around to her. Specifically to a 2-CD set (minus box…they knocked five dollars off the price…that’s all it took!) entitled Brenda Lee Anthology: 1956-1980–surely the only Brenda I would ever need.
I bought other stuff, too. I don’t remember specifically what, but there were probably two or three other cheap CDs. The Anthology, though, was definitely the big purchase of the week, I do remember that. I remember that because it was my habit to save the big purchase for last. So the way it worked, I got myself something to eat, I puttered around, I watched part of the baseball or basketball game (whatever season it was).
I listened to the other CDs.
Then, when midnight drew near, I threw on the first CD of the Brenda Lee set.
My thinking was I could listen to a few tracks while I was getting ready for my shower (probably something similar to what I had done with that LP that got by me back when). Then, if it sounded like I might miss something important, I could pause it while I was in the shower and, if it didn’t, I could turn it up a little and keep it playing, pretty sure I would hear enough of what was going on over the stinging needles to do a playback if needed. I mean, it was the big purchase of the week but I knew Brenda Lee, had grown up with her being sort of around, heard her all my life.
I was pretty sure I could sneak in a shower.
So I listened to this while I was getting the towels out, changing into my robe…
And it was fine. Not Hank Williams (hell, she was eleven) but catchy. Then there was a another catchy one and the one after that was this one…
And I thought, “Gee, this is….something…”
Enough of something to get me to walk into where the stereo was and cinch my robe and take a seat.
Just for a song or two, you know.
Then the song or two went by and this came on…
And I thought…”What is this?” By which my subconscious meant something like “What’s happening here?”
An hour-and-a-half later, I was still sitting there in my robe, listening to this…
“What just happened?”
Well, by then the question was purely rhetorical. I knew what had just happened. What had just happened was I had been taken on a great journey through American music–rock and roll, country, rockabillly, R&B, the Nashville Sound, teen-pop, Tin Pan Alley–by one of its greatest singers.
And I wasn’t entirely happy about it.
Oh, I was happy about the music. Ecstatic in fact. Lifted in the way that only the discovery (or in this case, comprehension) of a great new voice could lift somebody who spent as much of his life searching for voices as I did.
But the ecstasy was cut, seriously, by anger.
I was angry at the people who had lied to me, who had managed to render somebody I had known all my life literally invisible, to somehow shove her out of reach, past what I had previously considered my very keen hearing.
And it was then–right then–that I began developing my Unified Theory of Rock Criticism as a specific conspiracy designed to drop Brenda Lee down the memory hole.
It took me about ten minutes to develop that theory. I’m still working out how I feel about it. Which is maybe why I put Brenda Lee’s picture at the top of my blog the day it started and waited six years to write about her.
I’m still working through my issues.
But this is a celebration of Brenda Lee, so I’m not planning to work through them here. What I’m planning to do here is place Brenda Lee in rock and roll history the way I hear it.
And the best way to do that is to leave my story alone and tell hers…
First her life, then her art.
Her life went more or less like this….
She was born in 1944. Her family was literally dirt poor, moving constantly in and around the dirt hills of northeast Georgia. She was singing for candy in local stores at three, on what passed for the local stages at five, on local radio not long after. When her father died in 1953, she instantly became the family’s principal breadwinner, a journey that took her to radio stations in Ohio, Kentucky and, eventually, a local show where, upon hearing the voice John Lennon would later allegedly pronounce “the greatest rock and roll voice of them all,” Red Foley got “cold chills,” watched her get three encores, and signed her up for the Ozark Mountain Jubilee.
Soon she was commuting from north Georgia to southern Missouri every weekend, leaving Friday afternoon for a fifteen-hour ride with whoever was going, telling jokes to keep the drivers awake, performing live Saturday night in settings like this one….
Then returning on Sunday, arriving home Monday in the wee hours, just in time for school
More Mondays than not, her head hit the desk before lunch time. Her teachers let her sleep.
The hard-won professionalism that would, in part, keep several generations of critics, programmed to prize what they deemed “spontaneity” as the only true form of “authenticity,” from understanding her, paid off with a Nashville contract (Decca/MCA) in 1955.
Then the real work began. How to sell an eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen-year-old girl who looked half her age to either a hard-bitten country audience that had never accepted anyone her age before, or a rock and roll audience that Nashville was scared to death of–and, despite a few hits for Frankie Lymon and Arlene Smith’s Chantels, hadn’t made anybody that young a major star either. One hit wonders of the type that proliferated throughout rock’s early dawn were virtually unheard of in country at any age. In Nashville, they were looking to build careers.
But, in order to build a career, you had to have a hit to build it on. Somewhere, some time. You can stand around and look cute. You can even go to Vegas…
You can carry your family on your back, touring from town to town. You can sign with a one artist manager (just like Elvis!) who makes you the first truly international rock and roll touring star while Nashville’s A Team and crackest of crack producers (Owen Bradley), is still trying to figure out where you fit. You can smart talk the ace session men (“well goo-goo to you, too” she said, on the guar-an-teed last occasion when anybody talked down to her) and get everybody who knows you personally to love you enough that you’ll be something like the biggest star nobody ever said a bad word about…if you can only find a hit that makes you a star to begin with. Something more than a touring sensation. Something more than a girl the French make up stories about (“she’s really a thirty-year-old midget!”…that made more sense than the truth of that voice coming from a four-foot-nothing thirteen-year-old).
It must have been the longest four years anyone ever lived while, in some senses, having it so good. She was everybody’s baby. She was making a living. She was even already “Little Miss Dynamite” as great an earned nickname as anybody ever had or ever will.
She just wasn’t a hit-maker.
It must have been extraordinarily frustrating–to hear dozens (or hundreds) who weren’t as good as you have hits, even strings of hits, in and out of Nashville. Even for someone who had once moved eight times in nine years, seen her daddy die of old age in his forties (like so many then), carried her family on her tiny back for nearly a decade at the ripe old age of fifteen without achieving anything like the Shirley Temple/Judy Garland level of promised success that must have been whispered in her ear by managers, talent scouts, record producers, know-it-alls, know-nothings, from the time she was big enough to stand on the box that let her reach the microphone.
The only picture I could find of Brenda with Patsy Cline
Frustrating all the more because she must have known she was already so much more than a pro. Being a pro was important, sure, but it only gets anyone so far. If you are being mistaken for a female midget, it may not get you as far as it does some others. And, without a hit, the greatest mentors and finest friends can’t keep you afloat forever.
Frustrating because, on top of everything else, you’ve managed to get better and better, to build, step by painful step, something authentically new in American music, the blend of Hank Williams, Mahalia Jackson and Judy Garland you, and you alone, aimed for. Hard to do all that, and still get taken for a little girl.
Harder still if even this can’t bring you a hit (it didn’t get big until after she did)…
..and the specific style you’ve been groomed for, rockabilly, is beginning to fade. One day, you look around and Elvis is in the army, Jerry Lee’s in trouble for cousin-marryin’ (surprise, surprise), Buddy Holly just went down in a plane crash. Roy Orbison is thinking about how to get away from Sam Phillips. Charlie Rich is doing the same. And you?
…Then the Art
Well, you’ve been on a major label for nearly four years without cracking the Hot 100.
And, oh by the way, the word has gone out.
If you do, by chance, get a pop hit, Nashville won’t let any country stations play it. It’s not 1956 anymore. The world has moved on. They had shut out the Louisiana Hayride. They had shut out Elvis and the Everly Brothers. They had kept the colored people out.
Actually, that last part was sort of okay. She did behave. Maybe she didn’t quite always behave just exactly like the book said (and wouldn’t you like to get a peek at that book, the one you know is still somewhere in Nashville, locked away, consulted only on high holy occasions, its location and provenance known only to the few?) when she opened her mouth to sing, but, hey, that’s a chance you sometimes have to take. Does it matter really, where the records get sold? The profits come back to the same office don’t they, whether the next release takes off in Pittsburgh or Winnemucca….or Tokyo?
It could have gone on a while longer, the speculation about whether she would finally make it. Maybe not much longer. Certainly not forever. Even Nashville loses patience at some point. They lost patience with plenty of people, before and since, who had fewer shots at making it than Brenda did. Some of them were even big talents.
But maybe not quite as big a talent as she was. It wasn’t her professionalism or her toughness or her beyond-her-years ladylike demeanor that won her all that patience–seven singles in three years that combined for exactly one week on the country charts and zero weeks in the Top 40. It was her voice. Her voice and, I suspect, a general sense that the voice wasn’t the problem, that it couldn’t really miss if it was given the right setting.
What that setting was, nobody knew. We shouldn’t forget that. We shouldn’t forget what we have forgotten in the nearly six decades since, the decades that have brought us a long string of what I like to call Brenda’s Children, a line that, sticking only to white women and the most obvious, runs directly from Jackie DeShannon to Lulu to Tanya Tucker to Stevie Nicks to Sheryl Crow to Pink and whoever comes next, casting a shadow the meanwhile on every single woman who has sung any sort of rock, country or southern inflected R&B.
We shouldn’t forget that Brenda Mae Tarpley made herself up out of Hank Williams and Mahalia Jackson and Judy Garland and that nobody before her sounded like her. We shouldn’t forget that, having heard that voice in literally hundreds of different throats since, we can take its place in the American soundscape for granted only because it was one of those voices that, when it did appear, made everybody go, “Well, of course,” and believe they must have heard it all their lives because it’s that kind of voice. I mean, a sound like that, what would keep it from existing in our national consciousness before, say, 1959?
Lots of things, actually. Musical things, cultural things, socio-political things. All that plus the absence, until the right moment, of an imagination sufficient to the task of calling the future into being.
If you are thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, well-behaved, mistaken for a midget, a freak of “nature,” not interested in songwriting, most of all a girl-l-l-l-l, then you are not likely to be given credit for all that. Not even if, through all the sweat, all the grind, all the learning, you find your way, at last, to this…
…and make it sound as natural as breathing.
After that, the floodgates.
For one hot minute, she was alone. Then the minute passed–lightning quick, as rock and roll time demanded back then–and her imitators were everywhere. There was a reason I was ready for her all those years later in my apartment, stuck in my chair as if I were paralyzed, as if I had lost every sense but my hearing. I was ready because “Oh Me, Oh My” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart’ and “Landslide” and “Delta Dawn” and a hundred others had made me ready, ready to say “Oh, that’s where all that came from,” ready to go searching for where she had come from, a search that still goes on, because, if she came from anywhere, (even Edith Piaf, as some insist), it’s not likely she came from there anywhere near as directly as all those others came from her.
So the stardom everybody had predicted came at last.
And it came because she had put the essential rasp in the future of white women singing rock and roll.
And because she was a pro’s pro.
Well, she still had a life to live.
Like so much else, she didn’t live it the way anybody expected.
Chaperoned on dates until she was eighteen, she eloped with the first man she dated alone, (eloped so that her mother and her manager wouldn’t have a chance to talk her out of it). She had two kids. She left the road for a bit to raise them. She saw the British Invasion coming before anyone else. (But boys, where do you get these songs? she asked two lads whose band was opening for her on a German tour. John Lennon and Paul McCartney looked at each other and said, Well. We wrote them….. Oh my, she said. A lot of people would later claim they said something similar, but she was the only one who went home and told her record company they would be fools if they didn’t sign that band at once. It didn’t matter what kind of performers they were, the songs would be worth a fortune. The record company scoffed at her. I’m certain she was too much of a lady to ever remind them, after what she knew was bound to happen happened.)
What was bound to happen took as much out her career as anyone’s. She would always say she never changed, the world just turned. Right enough.
Because it was all more or less there from the beginning. It was there, not so much because she wasn’t forever polishing her style, but because the quality that marked her off even more than her remarkable timbre was the artist’s consummate empathy.
I’ll share what I’ve lived, her voice would always say.
And I’ll share what you’ve lived.
It was that last that made her a giant. It was why she could exemplify the rock and roll audience more deeply than anyone else, even though she had grown up as far inside Show Biz as Ricky Nelson (the only other major early rock icon who had grown up in Show Biz at all). The efforts her family–and, lest we forget, her culture–made to make sure she kept her feet on the ground, made a perfect fit with her nature. She was the little girl with the big voice and she was Little Miss Dynamite.
She was also every-teen.
She wasn’t chaperoned on dates when she was sixteen because she was selling millions of records. She was chaperoned because, in the world she came from, that was what you did. (It was the last moment when many did, but it was still what you did.)
She sold “Let’s Jump the Broomstick”–marriage as an act of rebellion–because that’s what she imagined others doing. A few years later she eloped.
But it wasn’t a simple matter of wish-fulfillment. Nobody could have sustained a career like hers on that.
She would learn–in the process of becoming the highest charting female act of the 1960s (trailing only Elvis, The Beatles, and, in some counts, Ray Charles)–to summon feelings no one would wish for.
She would learn to do it so well–to imagine herself in our shoes so thoroughly–that some of us would never wish for anyone else to take her place.
She would do that despite living no part of it herself. She would do it despite remaining happily married for life to the first man she ever dated without a chaperone.
And she would do it over and over again–wring every last ache out of the ballads that made her the Queen of Heartbreak:
…all defining (and being defined by) a sensibility that ended up in the same place, no matter which angle she started from…
Then the times changed and she woke up one day to find that her one-act manager had passed away, left her–a massive touring star who was the best selling female act of her era–in possession of her husband, those two kids, twenty thousand dollars and the deed to a split level ranch house. She made her husband-for-life her manager and determined not the repeat the mistake. That led to a fine second career on the country charts which finally welcomed her when she could no longer go pop. Somewhere down the line–some time after I had my epiphany, the honors came. The Halls of Fame (she’s one of four acts who is in both the Rock and Roll and Country Halls as a performer–the others are Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and the Everly Brothers….you may have heard of them) came calling, better late than never. The inevitable embalming in Branson. The late career retrospectives and fond reminiscences.
And the secret tribute from the air, where her voice is still the foundation of a hundred others who may never have heard her or even of her. Now, they swaddle those voices in walls of suit-approved, machine-generated white noise, but, if you strip all that away, it’s still her voice at the core. You might call it the Other voice.
Because the great voices come in two kinds: those that can be readily imitated (even if never quite matched) and those that can’t.
Call it the Brenda Lee/Patsy Cline Paradigm.
Patsy’s influence is almost entirely inspirational because nobody can quite get in her space.
Same for Billie Holiday. Same for Janis Joplin.
Brenda Lee? Well, gee, lots of people sound like her, don’t they? Lots of people get in her space.
Sure they do.
And because of that, we’re prone to assume she just came from the air. That if she hadn’t conjured whatever she conjured, somebody else would have.
That’s how she gets dropped down the memory hole and also why she can never quite remain buried.
The air works like that.
Too many end up owing you too much. As long as anyone, anywhere wants to dig a little deeper–and as long as there’s air to breathe, someone will–it’s always you they’ll find at the root.
Brenda Mae Tarpley may have only grown to four-foot nothing.