Primo Stevie and a high point of both his career and the Rising. Highlights are many, including “Superstition,” a valid entry in the Greatest Record Ever Made sweepstakes.
And, at this distance, even its mellow, meandering cuts talk louder than they did in the seventies, when Hope was still a prime ingredient and Anger was still righteous. And, of course, it still goes out on the smiling note of “I Believe,” a side which has me thinking about my Favorite Album Closer.
But what speaks loudest today is “Big Brother,” which still says I don’t even have to do nothing to you, you’ll cause your own country to fall, after he’s already told you why.
9) Patty Loveless (1986)
Patty’s eponymous debut. It was basically a collection of mid-charting singles and their B-sides from the early days when Nashville wasn’t quite sure what to do with or make of her.
If it were all there was, it would be remarkable enough to make you wonder why she didn’t quite make it. Sort of like wondering why Kelly Willis or Mandy Barnett or Shelby Lynne didn’t quite make it. As is, it’s still a fine entry. No weak cuts (she didn’t know how to make weak cuts), though only a hint, albeit a strong one, of why she would not end up being cast aside. As usual the simplest explanation is the best. She was Patty Loveless and they weren’t.
8) Glen CampbellThe Capitol Years 65-77 (1998)
Just a reminder of how good he was and for how long….and how many directions his career could have gone. His last big hit was from Allen Touissant after all. “Galveston” (reportedly Glen’s own favorite) hits especially close to home these days, when it is clear some poor schlub will always be cleaning his gun until the Empire collapses.
And the “Rhinestone Cowboy”/”Country Boy” one-two punch will always be a knockout.
But he really could have been a Beach Boy, too…Or a folk rock stalwart.
A superb two-disc comp that doesn’t quit and showcases Paul Rodgers at his best. For me, this hits the just-right sweet spot between the populist (think Rodgers’ next group, Bad Company, who I still love) and arty approaches (think John Mayall or even Mike Bloomfield, who I also love) to white blues that proliferated in the “molten” decade between 1965-75. This, I could listen to all day, because everything is in place, but nothing feels forced.
Grand overview of history’s most successful Power Pop band (unless Blondie counts). Yes, they go down easier at album length and easier still at single length. And yes, you could argue they never really broke, or needed to break, the mold of their early singles.
But there were an awful lot of great singles in there and it’s nice to have them all in one place so you can just let them roll over you.
How you have a two-disc comp, though–one complete with outtakes, B-sides and previously unissueds which don’t even come close to breaking the momentum–and leave off “Bye Bye Love,” one of their greatest and still in regular rotation on Classic Rock radio, I’ll never know.
5) Cyndi Lauper She’s So Unusual (1983)
The greatest album of 1983…or 1984 (when its five hit singles were all over the radio), or the entire 80s…turns out to be the greatest album of 2017, too. I’m thinking of doing a longish piece on either the album or one of the individual cuts so I won’t go on at length here. Suffice to say this was the last time anyone–including Cyndi–was both willing and able to pull off a vision that incorporated nearly everything rock and roll had been up to that point (including Byrds’ guitar, which I finally heard tolling under the maelstrom of “Money Changes Everything” just the other day. (Live link…if you only click on one, etc….no Byrds guitar, just a reminder that she was the era’s greatest live performer, too.)
Then, it was possible to hear it as a direction the future might take. Now, it sounds more like rage against the dying of the light. And anyone who thinks it quits on what used to be the second side just hasn’t been paying attention all these years.
4) Johnny RiversSecret Agent Man: The Ultimate Johnny Rivers Anthology (2006)
Well, there’s definitely an “anthology” theme developing here (don’t worry, it’s not done yet).
This was released fifteen years after Johnny’s Rhino two-discer and, as such, includes generous helpings from his later rockabilly throwback albums.
It seems Johnny was always throwing back to something–he broke out with a Chuck Berry cover in the teeth of the British Invasion, after all, when everybody else was just playing lip service (that’s what an album track amounted to in those days). But across four decades he never failed to add those things that came only from him. The plaintive timbre (never parlayed more effectively than on his jumping “live” cuts). The sharp-edged, no-nonsense guitar lines (ditto). The sense that time keeps turning back on itself, never resting. Not sure how anyone could listen to this all the way through to “Let It Rock” and argue that he doesn’t belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but then life is full of mysteries.
3) The SpinnersA One of a Kind Love Affair: The Anthology (1991)
The Spinners are one of the few acts who have been blessed with great comps at every level. Their 1978 Best of is as essential as anything Rock and Roll America produced. Their 2003 box set, The Chrome Collection, contains revelations galore (one of which I wrote about here). And this, a two-disc tweener, is perfect in its own way, since, unlike the other comps, it includes a lot of 12-inch versions of their hits, all of which sustain and satisfy because Philippe Wynne was the greatest improv vocalist to ever stand in front of a microphone (and no, I haven’t forgotten Louis Armstrong).
They made great albums, too. How could they not? They were the greatest vocal group of the 70s, and in the conversation with the Temptations, the Beach Boys, the Everlys and the Mamas & the Papas, as the greatest vocal group of the rock and roll era. There’s no way even a box set could fully contain them. But if there were only going to be one Spinners’ comp in the world, I’d have to pick this one, which catches the aspirational aspects of Black America–the still radical notion that black people belong here–like nothing else.
2) Rod Stewart Reason to Believe: The Complete Mercury Studio Recordings (2002)
Staggering. 3 discs containing Stewart’s first five solo albums (plus an album’s worth of mostly killer extras–only “Pinball Wizard,” which must have seemed a natural for him, falls flat).
These are the records that made the reputation he has lived on ever since, and, however unfortunate his life and legacy became afterwards, they’re plenty enough to justify four decades of self-indulgent posing and/or epic laziness (take your pick). Everything that stands between you and his decades of excrescence still disappears the minute he pivots in the middle of “Street Fighting Man,” which led his first album, and turns it from a straight country blues (some kind of attempt to reclaim both its musical and political origins) and shows he hasn’t forgot what he learned hanging out in the London Blooz scene….which was how to stomp.
Over these five albums, he never forgot. Over the few years left of the seventies, he mostly forgot.
This natural pairing of Winston Rodney’s classic reggae albums (more high points of the Rising, arriving just as it became the Falling) is probaly now the natural way to listen…the vocal version of his celebration of the black nationalist, Marcus Garvey, flowing into the dub version.
By major act (and as prelude to a piece on Motown’s real importance in the sixties–coming….some day!).
Since the object is to honor the records, I used mostly studio recordings or lip synchs. The major exception is Smokey solo on “Sweet Harmony.” You know, if you only click one, yaddah, yaddah. I included the important acts who passed through Motown on their way to bigger, better things, because, well, they made great records on Motown, too. I stopped with acts who were at least signed in the 70s.
And I added my favorite one shot at the bottom–because God knows there were plenty of those!
The Marvelettes “Playboy” (1962)
The Miracles “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage” (1967)
Mary Wells “The One Who Really Loves You”(1962)
Marvin Gaye “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” (1969)
Martha and the Vandellas “Honey Chile” (1967)
The Supremes “Reflections” (1967)
The Temptations “Don’t Look Back” (1965)
The Four Tops “Standing in the Shadows of Love” (1966)
Stevie Wonder:”I Believe (When I Fall in Love With You It Will Be Forever)” (1972)
Gladys Knight & the Pips “It Should Have Been Me” (1968)
The Isley Brothers “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)” (1966)
Jr. Walker & the All Stars: “Way Back Home” (1971)
Marvin and Tammi “If This World Were Mine” (1967)
Spinners “We’ll Have it Made” (1971)
The Jackson 5 “ABC” (1970)
Diana Ross (solo) “Upside Down” (1980)
Smokey Robinson (solo) “Sweet Harmony” (1973)
Jackson 5 (solo) Jermaine: “That’s How Love Goes” (1972)
The Commodores “Sail On” (1979)
Rick James “Superfreak (Part 1)” (1981)
Lionel Richie (solo) “Deep River Woman” w/Alabama (1986)
And, my favorite one shot (or, if you like, one big shot), in a close run over Brenda Holloway’s “Every Little Bit Hurts” and R. Dean Taylor’s “Indiana Wants Me” (which I’m guessing not a lot of people remember was a Motown record):
Jimmy Ruffin “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” (1966)
I’ve been listening to various editions of Rhino’s old twenty-volume Didn’t it Blow Your Mind series for the last few weeks. The series is an excellent overview of 70s soul, and perhaps unique in that emphasizes the breadth and depth of the genre rather than the preeminence of big names like Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder.
Some of those names are present, but, in this context, their records flow by in a river that’s far deeper than any handful of geniuses could have either created or maintained by themselves. Given time I’ll want to write about it at length some day, because the scope really is staggering. I’m not going to say the 70s were the greatest decade for black music–that would be a hard case to prove, given what had gone on during every decade back to the 20s. But if “greatness” were simply measured by now many fine records were made, and how much those records managed to say, then I’ll say it would probably take longer to get to the bottom of the soul 70s than any other decade of black music.
For instance, you can be nodding along, to something like Volume 13 of Didn’t it Blow Your Mind, still knocked out by the hits you know by heart–“Rock the Boat,” “Rock Your Baby,” “Hollywood Swinging,” “Side Show”–and then have your entire perception (er, “mind”) opened up (er, “blown”)–by nothing more than some old pros doing what they do. And if you think, as I do, that these deceptively modest records, huge hits on the R&B chart which also made the pop charts, carry the weight of history as much as big and fabulous crossover smashes like “Tell Me Something Good” (which follows them on Volume 13), you might experience nothing less than an ephipany.
I haven’t had a new category in a while. I can’t find enough excuses to highlight records I think are great but weren’t big hits in their time. I’m not sure if anything is truly “obscure” anymore, but I’ll pick things that didn’t make the Top Ten anyway. First up is the Spinners’ “We’ll Have It Made.”
A little background: the Spinners had hung around the scene for a decade by 1970. They had reached the Top 40 a couple of times, had a little success in R&B, without being quite quite able to break out.
Motown, their then-current label, teamed them up with a struggling Stevie Wonder (he was in a commercial slump and being strongly considered for contract termination)**. Wonder wrote and produced “It’s a Shame,” on the group and it became both a big hit and one of the era’s most important records, reviving his career, giving him a strong negotiating point with Motown which played a role in their renewing his contract and spring-boarding the change from a fine run of hits, on the order of the Marvelettes or Junior Walker, into an era-defining legend.
“We’ll Have It Made,” also written and produced by Stevie, was the followup to “It’s A Shame.” To my ears, it’s an even greater record–and a key precursor to the sounds he would pursue himself in the decade to come. But, because it didn’t fare nearly as well as its predecessor, it was the Spinners who became expendable at Motown. The label let them go, Atlantic picked them up. Soon they were paired with Thom Bell. The rest is seventies’ soul history.
If this had been more popular?
Like a lot of things that gleam out of the shadows–and a lot of things that will appear under this category–this is the sound of what might have been.
(**Sharp-eyed friend of the blog, Neal Umphred, rightly pointed out that Stevie was actually enjoying a nice run of hits. My bad for sloppy research. Wonder had actually let his own contract expire and was in negotiations with Motown concerning his future with the label. It all worked out and it’s fair to conclude that “It’s a Shame” played a role in giving Wonder a stronger position, which, of course, he ultimately exploited to the fullest. But I definitely should have been both clearer and more thorough.)
I’ll just take the suspense out of it this time and go ahead and admit my current favorite double LP, unlikely to be dislodged any time soon, is the one pictured above. I’ll get back around to it in a bit, but I want to preface this with a short history of the “double LP.”
It has to be a short history because truly important double LP’s in rock and roll–one artist, studio bound, more or less conceptual, on two 12″ vinyl records, making some sort of real statement that amounted to something more than simple overindulgence or hubris–weren’t all that numerous.
Though the concept had been around since the fifties, Bob Dylan started the whole thing for rockers with Blonde on Blonde in 1966. Over the next two decades or so, the meaningful history of the concept amounted to more or less the following:
Freak Out The Mothers of Invention (1966)
Electric Ladyland The Jimi Hendrix Experience. (1968)
The Beatles (aka The White Album) The Beatles (1968)
Trout Mask Replica Captain Beefheart (1969)
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs Derek and the Dominoes (1970)
Exile on Main Street The Rolling Stones (1972)
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Elton John (1973)
Songs in the Key of Life Stevie Wonder (1976)
Tusk Fleetwood Mac (1979)
The Wall Pink Floyd (1979)
London Calling The Clash (1979)
The River Bruce Springsteen (1980)
1999 Prince (1982)
Double Nickels on the Dime The Minutemen (1984)
Sign O’ the Times Prince (1987)
I may have left out a few, especially on the cult side, but those entries represent the basic shape of it. There were dozens of others recorded (who can forget Atomic Rooster!) but those are the highlights from the days when it still mattered–major artists, or at least major cult artists, making major statements in the studio that couldn’t reasonably fit on one LP in the pre-digital days before virtually unlimited content made the LP, let alone the double LP, an entirely amorphous concept. These days, if you want fifteen songs on your latest album, there’s usually nobody there to either stop you at twelve or make you come up with four more. Same if you want thirty-two or seven.
That said, the list above is not a half-bad overview of rock history, or at least the limits of rock ambition, from the mid-sixties to the late eighties. Before the technology altered both limitations and expectations for the form, it was almost impossible for any but the most adventurous artists to leave any kind of impact on the history of the music through the medium of the double LP. Technology giveth–the double LP couldn’t have existed without it. And technology taketh away–these days anybody can make a “statement,” so no one ever quite does.
So it goes.
My own experience with double LPs is pretty limited. I’ve listened to all the albums above at least once or twice. Of those I’ve heard only once or twice (Freak Out, Trout Mask, The Wall, Double Nickels), I can imagine some day getting closer to Double Nickels on the Dimefor reasons I explained here. Of those I’ve listened to more than once or twice, I can easily imagine getting closer to Blonde on Blonde, Electric Ladyland, Songs in the Key of Life, The River, 1999 and Sign O’ the Times, all of which I like a lot but never quite obsessed over.
Besides Tusk, that leaves:
These, I’ve obsessed over.
Some time or other.
Leave London Calling, however reluctantly, to youth, and the breaking of rulers (or, as I used to call them, drumsticks) over various bits of unpaid-for furniture.
Say Goodbye Yellow Brick Road really is a tad slick and, if I say that (which it maybe is, though only in comparison with what’s left standing, and really only a tad), then I have to say the same for The White Album too, even if the least of it functions perfectly as filler.
Somewhere along the way, you have to make things a little bit easy for yourself.
That leaves Layla and Exile and Tusk and having to choose–really having to choose because I chickened out on my last category and there’s no point in doing this if you aren’t going to make impossible choices.
Boy, do I feel foolish.
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and Exile on Main Street are not only bottomless, they come from a period I really like better than 1979. Surely it was harder to define despair at a moment when at least a modicum of hope remained? Surely it was harder to sound crapped out at the beginning of the last decade before the reactionary backlash fully set in than at the end, on the very eve of the real destruction?
One thing that doesn’t surprise me in hindsight is that neither Eric Clapton, the Stones nor Fleetwood Mac ever sounded quite up to the task again. All made fine music now and then. None ever again sounded truly epic.
And maybe the reason I give an edge to Tusk these days is that it pulls off the near impossibility of sounding quietly epic. Which, given its subject matter in common with Layla and, especially, Exile–spiritual desperation born of dissolution, unless, of course, it’s the other way around–just means it ends up, on the very closest attention, sounding ten times as vicious.
You end up sounding ten times as vicious as Exile on Main Street, you’ve got my attention.
But how else is there to hear it when you listen close?
Granting it’s all “metaphorical,” the rain outside coming down forever, the feel of 1979, transmuted through the broken relationships that had already been done to death on Rumours, one of the best and most popular albums of the decade. But so what? Pass it through ten thousand layers of studio polish and emotional murk and a knife fight still sounds like a knife fight.
And Tusk still sounds like what The White Album might have if John and Paul had gone right ahead and said what they were really thinking, instead of holding it back for their solo albums (and George, checking in from the other room, had been half the singer Christine McVie was).
For a good portion of Tusk, Lindsey Buckingham doesn’t just sound like he’s waving knives, he sounds like he’s throwing them. And Stevie Nicks sounds like she’s catching them in her teeth and spitting them out. Which leaves McVie to wipe up the blood.
Pleasant that. And never-ending. The damn thing stops and, sure enough, when you push the button–no relief breaks from getting up and turning over the record anymore…technology giveth and technology taketh away–it starts all over.
There’s Buckingham, saying stuff like “What makes you think you’re the one?” and “It’s not that funny is it?” and “That’s all for everyone,” in the exact tone you’d expect from somebody who is banging the little woman’s head against the wall he just ripped the phone out of. Pretty soon he’s singing “Don’t blame me,” like a head case on Law and Order who makes you believe until the very last minute that he might be innocent. After that he’s singing about walking a thin line inside his own head as a lead-in to an ode to his member which, in context, begins to sound like an Appalachian murder ballad.
“Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”
Before I have to put this knife in your throat.
All of which should make the myriad of devices–alternately soothing, bitter, angry, forgiving–that Nicks is using to survive sound pathetic (a “mooncalf” in Robert Christgau’s contemporary judgment). Probably she would sound pathetic, except that she’s Stevie Nicks, so even when it seems like she’s going to drift away, (“drowning in a seas of love, where everyone would love to drown”) there’s always some bit of timbre or phrasing that snaps her back. Pretty soon after you accept that she isn’t going to come undone, her compliments–“When you were good, you were very, very good”–start to sound like razor cuts, just because she’s the one singing them. “Intense silence” sounds like “Intense violence” and there’s no question who the silence and the violence are really directed at. You can fool yourself into believing she’s indulging in escapism but it would be very dangerous to turn your back.
That leaves McVie in something like the role she had on Rumours and, to a lesser extent, Fleetwood Mac–a honey-toned referee, there to cut the hard tension with a kind of melancholy that doesn’t exactly disperse the bitterness but at least makes it bearable.
Except here it’s not quite that simple. Here she sounds more like the woman across the street who can hear what’s going on at the neighbors’, who keeps a window open maybe just so she can hear, but can never quite bring herself to call the cops. Over and over she’ll never forget tonight. Something’s certainly distracting her. Maybe she’s having the best sex of her life. Maybe she’s found true love. Maybe she’s earned her peace.
Too bad the neighbors are killing each other.
It’s easy enough to hear why Tusk never reached the stratosphere commercially. It runs on sounds and attitudes more than melodies and pop song structure. It’s a mashup, coolly received in its own time (Greil Marcus was one of the very few big-time critics who lauded it–John McVie said it sounded like three solo albums mashed together and he wasn’t entirely wrong, just irrelevant), which turned out to be a time most people would like to forget.
But we still live in those times. They were just beginning when Fleetwood Mac spent endless months wringing Tusk out of the experience of their own lives and their improbably mad fortune. There’s something heroic about most of the other albums I listed above, even those which came after, when the rot was really setting in. There’s nothing heroic about Tusk. It promises no change, offers no peace, no idea that things will ever get better. Like every one of the great albums listed above it had its finger on the pulse of its own time. More than any album I know of, it also had its finger on the pulse of the future.
Compared to that, having my first car wreck, in 1981, while trying to remember the lyrics to “Caroline, No,” is chicken scratch.
For some of us, car wrecks come and go. ’71 Mavericks come and go. But you only get one chance at The One.
Oh sure, other factors were definitely involved. Maybe he just “helped” cost me The One.
The One had a boyfriend after all. And they were engaged. So that made two mighty impediments. My honor and hers.
Plus it was summer and summers are short, and I wasn’t the sort to make short work of pursuing anyone, let alone The One.
Especially if she had a boyfriend and they were engaged.
Which I didn’t yet know they were on the second night of my summer–not, as it happened, the second night of her summer or the boyfriend’s, me being a late arrival to the Southern Baptist Conference Center due to Florida’s Junior College system, exactly one year away from reform, still being the only college system in the entire south that was on a different schedule from the rest.
So the second night–my second night–it was.
The night of the Talent Show.
I’d already met The One by then. Lobby of the Girls’ Dorm. Rainy day. She noodling on the piano and singing “You Light Up My Life,” me politely inquiring for the person the front desk had told me would assign me a room in the Boys’ Dorm.
I didn’t know she was The One by virtue of her being good-looking or singing “You Light Up My Life.” In 1979, whatever degree of interest the first factor drummed up was bound to be mitigated by the second.
In 1979, the ubiquitous presence of “You Light Up My Life” in the Air of Everywhere, was one of many, many factors that had me regularly contemplating slitting my wrists.
No, she didn’t become The One until our eyes met, ever so briefly, and I saw somebody who was in the same kind of trouble I was in.
Which meant I immediately started thinking of her as The One who could get me out. And of me as the one who could get her out.
And I didn’t give up hope when I saw her walking around with some guy the next day.
Hey, it didn’t mean they were engaged!
I even got my hopes up that evening when we all showed up for the Talent Show and filed into the auditorium from opposite ends and, in a crowd of maybe two hundred, I found myself walking down the fourth aisle straight toward The One, who was, I immediately noticed, sans boyfriend.
So how much of a boyfriend he could be (me not knowing they were engaged) huh? How much of a boyfriend could he be if he wasn’t even willing to accompany her to the Talent Show?
We sat next to each other and while there was little chance for actual conversation, we both laughed at all the same things. How could we not, she being The One and all? Others may have laughed, too. Probably did. Probably at the same things we did. But who cared? What was important was the building of the first small bond.
All that serendipity. I couldn’t possibly have asked for more, two days in.
Then, to close the show, the Elvis Impersonator came on.
Guy named Eddie.
He had the sideburns (permanent fixture). He had the rhinestone cape (borrowed for the occasion, God knows where). He had the screaming girls patting down his forehead (all in good fun). He had the scarves (proving he meant business).
He was clearly taking it seriously even if nobody else was and I was prepared to be generous.
And, yeah, interested to see how The One would take it.
Now, I already knew Eddie was the only guy in the Boys’ Dorm who had brought a record player with him (he might have been the only one who knew they were allowed). I also knew that one of the records he had with him was this one:
What I didn’t know–what I don’t think too many people knew–was that this was the only record he had with him.
So when the scarves had been distributed among the faux-faithful and the faux-screams had all died down and one of the girls on the stage went over to Eddie’s record player (which had us all wondering why it was there as the previous acts came and went), and, after carefully checking that Eddie was ready for his cue, prepared to drop the needle, I sort of expected a young man who had taken due care with all those other facets of Elvis Impersonation to, you know, sing–or at least lip-synch–an Elvis song.
Which he might have, if he had actually possessed an Elvis record.
Instead of, say, Endless Summer.
Call me immature. Call me crazy. Call me no longer prepared to be generous.
But even at the all-in-fun Talent Show for the 1979 summer staff of the Southern Baptist Conference Center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina, I wasn’t ready for an Elvis Impersonator to lip-synch to the Beach Boys.
And, even if I had been somehow ready for that in theory, I certainly wasn’t ready for the Elvis Impersonator to, in fact, start lip-synching to “I Get Around.”
Everybody else laughed. Including The One.
Which was okay. I was raised in church. I knew man was born in sin and nobody was perfect. There was nothing to forgive. It was between her and God.
Well, her and God and everybody else in the place, who did what you naturally do when “I Get Around” comes on (whether an Elvis Impersonator is involved or not) and started bopping in their seats. You know, bop a little to the left, bop a little to the right.
Clap your hands.
Let your body sway.
In time with the music.
Everybody, including The One.
Everybody except me.
In that moment I was a Clanton at the OK Corral.
Yes, I was in what turned out to be my rather brief “rock snob” phase, but I was only in the early stages of my Elvis fandom, still not quite sure how far that thing would go.
I could have stood Elvis being mocked.
But the Beach Boys?
No. That was a bridge too far.
“Surfin’ Safari” maybe. “Catch a Wave?”….maybe.
“I Get Around?”
Elvis was one thing.
Brian, Carl, Dennis, Mike, Al?
Those were my brothers.
I stayed stock still. The literal stick in the mud.
The One noticed.
After about the third bop to the right she didn’t bop quite as far, presumably because she didn’t want to keep bopping into my cold rock of a shoulder.
And as the song neared an end and the bopping gradually ceased, she leaned over and whispered something to her girlfriend (truly gorgeous and the one girl in the place everybody but me thought was better looking than The One, and they were inseparable right up until one particularly high social occasion in the middle of the summer when The One decided to, just once, and ever so casually, let everybody know otherwise, after which I never saw them together again, but that’s another story for another day).
In the moment, her girlfriend whispered back, at which point the music stopped entirely and I heard every word.
“Maybe he doesn’t know who they are,” she said.
Did I mention that I spent a lot of time in those days contemplating blades and wrists?
I didn’t really contemplate them less as the summer wore on.
And the funny thing was, it was otherwise a great experience.
You know, otherwise than having my best chance at really bonding with The One totally blown, and having her walk around thinking I must be the jerk of jerks, and an ignoramus to boot on the one subject where I wasn’t. All because Brian Wilson had produced a piece of music that put me past reason, a record that had come on the radio the summer I got that ’71 Maverick and helped teach me what freedom was, thereby leaving me permanently honor-bound to defend him as best I could even–or especially–in the strangest and most inconvenient of circumstances.
But, of course, she did not stop being The One. Not ever.
Not when I found out a day or two later that she was engaged (these things get broken off, don’t they?). Not when I barely saw her for weeks on end and found no chance whatsoever to speak with her at any length beyond hi-and-bye. Not when I joined the choir because I heard she was in it and it turned out I couldn’t get next to her because we were rehearsing a cantata and she had a speaking part and so was always at the front of the stage, separate and apart, even at practice.
Not when I found myself sitting next to her boyfriend on the bench at a softball game between innings, just past Summer’s midpoint, and somebody came up to him and asked him if it was true he and The One had broken up and the boyfriend said yeah and I said, ever so casually, “Wow, you guys had been going together a long time hadn’t you?” and he said “Naw, I just met her the first week we got here.”
The week I was still back in Florida. Attending classes at the only college or ju-co system in the entire south that let out a week late.
Just in case you think this absurdist story has some sort of resolution or happy ending, or even an unhappy ending, you may rest easy.
The story that began with me believing The One was engaged, and therefore off-limits, even if the whole “I Get Around” episode hadn’t made things indisputably awkward, had no ending.
Too close to the end of the summer, I said, there on the bench, just past Summer’s midpoint.
Too much chance she, now on the rebound, will shoot me down for too little reward, I said (and don’t forget the “I Get Around” incident…I said).
Besides, hey, I only just left home for the first time. I’m all of eighteen. There’s lots of time.
Probably once you get away from home this happens on a pretty regular basis. I said.
The One. Hah!
So that was my version of an ending, really. Just me watching her the rest of the summer. Watching her go through the motions. Watch her start skipping choir practice even though she was one of the key performers, while, I, of course, kept going, kept watching through windows and seeing her pop up in the distance, kept watching her wear, from that distance, the same mask of careful reserve that I was wearing and present the same absolute determination to let no one know just how much trouble she was in, that I was presenting.
Watching her prove beyond all doubt that I wasn’t wrong that very first day when I looked her in the eyes and knew what we shared.
Watching her, knowing we could save each other if I made a move, if I dared to reveal myself. And then wondering if what we would really do was destroy each other, knowing what we shared.
So yes. I talked myself out of it–out of even approaching her.
But the one remaining time I got close to her by accident, I didn’t walk away. I didn’t leave.
Which was why the story never really ended.
Because all we ended up doing was sitting at a breakfast table, with maybe six other kids, maybe two weeks from Summer’s end and she said something and somebody else said something and she said something back and I, as I periodically did in those days, thought of something clever to say and went ahead and said it and everybody laughed really loud.
Everybody except The One.
The One’s head snapped around and she stared at me and what it sure looked like was the stare of somebody who knew she was looking at someone who was in the same kind of trouble she was in.
Somebody who could save her.
Or go down with her.
Two weeks to go in Summer.
It took me three whole days to talk myself out of going anywhere near her again.
Though if she had showed up at one more choir practice? If we’d still been having choir practice?
But probably not.
I was running scared by then. And time was short.
Maybe she wasn’t The One after all.
She never did get that thing about “I Get Around,” did she?
You could say I was very romantic and you’d probably be right. You could say it was no big deal. You could say it was kid’s stuff.
You could say you could never really know, on the basis of such thin reasoning and thinner experience, that she was The One.
You could say that.
But then I’d have to say this.
I never dated her, barely even spoke to her. I never married. And I never forgot her, the way I forgot everybody else.
And I never stopped hoping that she, too, somehow got past the trouble she was in. That she didn’t go down.
After which, I’d also have to say something like:
“You want to know how you know The One was The One?”
All of that happens. All of that I just described.
That’s how you know.
So, yeah, Brian Wilson owes me.
I owe him more.
* * * *
Maybe not my life. Maybe not quite.
It wasn’t his music I was listening to in 1984 when the clouds finally rolled away and I knew I was going to survive. It was somebody else’s music.
Somebody he had inspired pretty directly as it happened and maybe I’ll write about that some other day, too. But the thing is, it could have been almost anybody who made music after a certain point because after a certain point almost everybody was inspired by him…pretty directly.
Just going through my usual, general listening the day after I saw Love & Mercy in the theaters for the first time, I heard him in Stevie Wonder, in Bob Marley, in the Beatles’ Revolver, all over Fleetwood Mac’s classic period, where, listening to acolyte Lindsey Buckingham’s version of “Farmer’s Daughter” on the disc of outtakes for Tusk, I was especially struck by how naturally it fit in with everything the band had done since Buckingham joined.
One could go on.
There are a lot of books on Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, plus a number of documentaries. I haven’t read or seen every single one. But I’ve read and seen my share. All of those combined don’t come close to telling how much it cost to make that soul-saving music as Love & Mercy does.
That’s the film’s great achievement.
You could nitpick it as art, maybe even as craft.
When I saw it the first time, in my local theater, the sound system wasn’t up to snuff. The dialogue seemed to be coming out of one speaker, which was working fine, but the music was coming out of a second, damaged speaker, and barely audible.
Pretty big handicap that. Not being able to hear the music too well in a musical biopic about a man whose particular genius was hearing the world slightly differently than everyone else and whose life story was the struggle to both mediate and communicate that difference.
It didn’t matter, though. Not in the least.
That’s how good Love & Mercy is. With the foreground music (mostly by the Beach Boys themselves) almost inaudible, the background music completely so (as I found out a day later when I had a chance to see it in Birmingham, with a sound system that worked, and could actually hear the period music that lent depth and scope to several key scenes), and me wondering whether it was a stylistic choice meant to reflect Wilson’s near-deafness in one ear, the movie still left me overwhelmed, staggered even, unable to leave my seat until the ushers finally came through sweeping the trash.
So maybe Paul Giamatti’s evil psychiatrist is a little over the top, even for Eugene Landy. Maybe I wish the other band members (besides Mike Love, generally regarded as a heavy, who is well and sensitively represented here) could have played a slightly bigger role. Maybe the balance between Wilson’s first wife, Marilyn, and his second, Melinda Ledbetter (played with a wonderful style of good old American can-do optimism by Elizabeth Banks), could have been a little more even. Maybe a few of the more conventional scenes do look a bit awkwardly expository and pedestrian sprinkled here and there amongst the sheer lyricism of the recording studio bits, the jolt of Wilson’s famous airplane breakdown (where Paul Dano manages to communicate real terror, the genuine spectre of death, in a circumstance where we know, as Brian Wilson did not in that moment, he’s going to survive and a moment the rest of Dano’s astounding performance has to measure itself against), or the dream-like disorientation of the late scenes where Dano’s baby-faced Boy-Man and John Cusack’s ravaged Man-Boy, finally fuse as one with a power and immediacy that’s only achievable on film, that, for once, uses the medium to go beyond the capacity of page or stage.
Like I say. Take all those maybes and throw them away.
The movie could be less good than it is–and, frankly, it’s remarkably good by even the usual standard–and still retain its power, as long as it kept the main ingredient, which is the triangulation of Dano, Cusack and Wilson himself, into a whole that is far greater than the sum of its considerable parts.
Yeah, I know how that sounds.
A movie that ain’t gonna clear 20 mil at the box office made Brian Wilson larger?
I’ll get to that.
But first, I better offer some assurance that I know at least a little bit…..
I know who the Beach Boys were/are (yeah, that really sets me apart).
I know they have a fan base that is even more curiously divided than the Beatles’ fan base when it comes to which version of the band matters most. (Shorthand–“I Get Around” or Pet Sounds?)
And I know if you put a gun to my head I’ll have to call up my memories of finding freedom behind the wheel of that ’71 Maverick and leave no doubt which side I come down on.
Not the side Love & Mercy celebrates as it happens. Those marvelous studio scenes involve Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations” and not much else. My least favorite Beach Boys as it happens, which doesn’t mean I don’t love them, too.
Anyway, it doesn’t matter.
Because I also know these choices are pretty silly. Maybe the sillier the more intensely they are felt. I don’t know too many people who really love early “fun” Beach Boys (or Beatles) to the exclusion of what came later, or vice versa. And, if you really do put that gun to my head, I might just go ahead take Wild Honey over Pet Sounds or “I Get Around.”
Heck, on a given day, I might take this:
…All of which I now know are pieces of Brian’s story, written and sung, respectively, by Carl, Dennis and Carl again before those particular parts of that story actually came to pass. And if they are pieces of Dennis’ and Carl’s stories, too, well, maybe that’s one of the things brothers are for and maybe sharing an abusive dad creates a bond that defies easy exegisis.
So I might indeed take any one of those, or any of a few dozen others, over any of what’s more generally celebrated, in Love & Mercy or elsewhere.
On a given day.
Which goes to show just how underwhelming these debates can be.
Because me and pretty much every other real Beach Boys’ fan would fight you to the last breath before we gave up any of it and feel a hole in our departed souls forever if we lost even one song that doesn’t mean a rip to us personally.
So far so good. We’d do what any lovers would do for the art that sustained them. Good for us.
And I know a few things.
Good for me.
But the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson also belong to that rare group of artists who matter far beyond any personal reaction/relationship you or I might have to or with them or their art.
Which obvious statement having been made, it may now be worth reviewing just how their particular relevance came to pass.
It came to pass, in short, because between about the summer of 1962 and some time around the end of 1967, Brian Wilson had a run of creative and commercial success matched by few American artists in any medium before, during or since.
In five years, working with a series of collaborators, not one of whom ever came near matching the achievements they had with him in any other context, he wrote and/or produced (sometimes uncredited) thirteen studio albums (about half of which now routinely and deservedly rank with somebody or other’s version of the greatest ever) that yielded twenty-eight chart hits (most of which became instant and permanent radio staples).
As a producer, he was a legitimate rival of Phil Spector and the Motown giants. As a vocal arranger, his only peers were Smokey Robinson and John Phillips. As a falsetto tenor, he was in a league with Robinson and Frankie Valli. As a songwriter/composer he drew comparisons to everyone from Benjamin Britten to Duke Ellington all whilst being the main American push-back against John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with whom he managed a close run despite never having any collaborator who could do for him what they could do for each other.
He did all that while carrying the scars of severe parental abuse (from his father), deafness in one ear (which may or may not have been caused by that abuse), auditory hallucinations which wouldn’t be properly diagnosed for decades, the predilection for drug addiction that could probably be deemed inevitable with such a background, and, oh yeah, the likelihood that the already tenuous aspects of this little psychic collective would be made manifest when an accident of geography and the sheer enormity of his talent placed him in a spot his basic personality was spectacularly unsuited to deal with, i.e., at the epicenter of “Los Angeles in the Sixties.”
Not to mention a band that wanted to keep having hits while he was pursuing his ever more elusive muse. Hits they could play in front of the live audiences who would pay the bills, call the radio stations, keep the legacy alive.
You want to make a movie that enlarges that legacy, you have to go some.
Love & Mercy goes some.
It escapes the boundaries of whatever might have been rationally expected because, using two actors who look nothing alike, jumping back and forth in time from the eighties to the sixties in a style that certainly flirts with incoherence, it turns Brian Wilson into something no version of his real self ever quite managed, which is to say a Character.
However close they remain to the facts–and Love & Mercy is, by most accounts, pretty darn faithful–bio-narratives, be they film or some other fiction, are never really about those facts. They’re about the story. They’re about the story the same way Brian Wilson’s music is about the sound.
Not the lyrics (or the dialogue), however relevant. Not the music (or the plot), no matter how idiosyncratically brilliant, or transcendently familiar.
The SOUND…and the Story.
Love & Mercy is what it is because it gets the supreme relevance of its story the same way the man it’s about got the supreme relevance of his sound.
And what the film makes abundantly clear, finally unmissable, is that the music Brian Wilson once made did indeed define certain aspects of our cultural psyche that would otherwise beg definition. Yes, the Southern California division of the American Dream. Yes, the “California Myth.”
All of that.
But not just that.
Any Beach Boys’ fan who ever listened at all closely (and it’s one measure of Wilson’s genius that you could genuinely love the band without doing so, that the experience of smiling every time they come on the radio and leaving it at that, is no less valid, no less definitive, than dropping acid while you listen to your bootleg copy of Smile, or, if you like, SMiLE), knows that summer, as Brian Wilson defined it, was really two seasons.
Summer…and End of Summer.
He didn’t take forever to lay down the distinction.
His first top ten hit was this…where it’s always the first of June:
His second top ten was this…
…Where it’s always the end of October.
Over time, certainly over the entire stretch of the Beach Boys’ ride at the top, Summer and End of Summer would bleed into each other, become almost inextricable in the collective imagination.
And, because Brian Wilson was who he was–because his End of Summer was bound to finally dominate his Summer, hit after hit, permanent radio classic after permanent radio classic–his End of Summer became our End of Summer.
Love & Mercy catches that quality like nothing else I’ve read or seen. Like nothing except Wilson’s own music, which this movie really does makes larger because, consciously or otherwise, it places his life and work–a life and work that were hardly unfamiliar to those of us most eager to see this movie–in that larger context, leaves him not just any Character, but a Character in a story that’s bigger than either artist or audience could ever be while that Character (which is, finally, related to, but not bound by, Wilson’s actual life) was yet undefined.
There’s no way I can overstate the improbability of this.
The director, Bill Pohlad, is no proven auteur. It’s his second feature as director (he’s an accomplished producer). His first, two decades back, was a flop. Paul Dano was evidently previously known for playing heavies (as someone who doesn’t see a lot of modern movies, I confess I’d never heard of him). John Cusack has, by all accounts and every piece of evidence I’ve seen, been coasting for years. Brian Wilson himself has been written and talked about, endlessly, obsessively, some might say far beyond the normal constraints of mere sycophancy, going all the way back to the Sixties, without ever being remotely pinned down or having his edges truly defined.
And without all those people somehow landing on the same page at once, none of the movie’s other strengths–a uniformly excellent cast (just because Giamatti’s over the top doesn’t mean he isn’t genuinely scary, though nowhere near as scary as Bill Camp’s finely wrought banality as Murry Wilson, the father who would rather choke on a thousand bones than accept that his son is better than he is at the only thing he himself was ever any good at), a strong, poignant script, a deep feel for the physical and emotional details of two periods that, in the real world, were actually made for the express purpose of rejecting each other and forcing a choice between Summer and False Summer, a choice we’ve never quite been up to making–would really matter.
As it lays, with the essentials firmly in place, everything in Love and Mercy reinforces everything else. The memory of the movie’s flaws, whatever I think they are, are already, after two viewings, flowing around and through and over the overwhelming memory of its strengths, in the same way a cut that would never work on its own suits a great album because it simply….fits.
As to what no filmmaker–and no genius seeking form for his life, even in an era he helped define–could ever arrange?
We live in America.
In America, the Sixties one day became the Eighties.
And, in America, the Eighties never ended.
Summer became End of Summer. And since End of Summer never ended, Spring isn’t going to come around anymore.
Neither is Summer.
So this Summer, you can sit in a movie theater and watch Paul Dano define the spirit of the young man who is terrified, more than anything else, of becoming the older, irreparably damaged man John Cusack finally knows, in a climactic scene that’s genuinely heartbreaking and somehow simultaneously cathartic, as though he’s finally accepted he’s taken the world’s last punch and is still standing, can never re-capture what he once was.
All he can do is face the worst and live his life.
Maybe with the help of The One who found him in a car dealership.
Which is, of course, how it worked out in “real life.” (And, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I don’t know what Melinda Ledbetter looked like in the eighties, but if she looked anything like Elizabeth Banks in tan jeans and an uber-coordinated sweater, she might have given anybody second thoughts about having The One be anyone but her.)
All great for Brian Wilson.
No one could be other than terrifically relieved and genuinely happy that he, too, made it through. That against very long odds–odds that took so many of his contemporaries and both of his brothers–he got to live his life.
But that’s not why Love & Mercy is a great movie. Not because it shows that, too, and let’s us share that happiness and relief.
It’s a great movie because, in its bones, it knows what the scared kid who ruled L.A., the loci of our last great romance with ourselves, at the last moment when that was worth anything, knew all along.
Summer is short.
The End of Summer, when it comes, is forever.
So no, I haven’t forgotten what happened in the Summer of 1979.
I haven’t forgotten that Brian Wilson owes me.
But, there’s something else Love & Mercy helped me remember.
It helped me remember that he warned me, too.
He warned all of us. And kept insisting the storm could be endured.
Eventually, some of us, even me, learned to listen. And most of us survived the trouble we were in.
I’ve never had strong opinions on whether Rock and Roll is ‘”album music” or “singles music.”
The debate more or less opened up in the wake of Dylan and the Beatles way back when. I don’t know if it gets a rise out of anybody these days, when every music is “download music.” But I started thinking along those lines (again) after all these years, in response to some of the on-line Hall of Fame discussions, which often center around the general conflict between Commerce (almost always code for a string of hit singles) and Art (almost always code for critically acclaimed LPs).
Of course, there have been a handful of acts, from the Beatles onwards, for whom the distinction was virtually meaningless..
But, trying to wrap my mind around it from a twenty-first century, middle-age perspective, I started counting up who–in Rock and Roll and Rock and Roll only–I really thought of as “album” artists.
For the purposes of this little list, then, I’m leaving out quite a bit.
No comps or live albums (certainly no box sets). No pre-rock artists (which for me would be Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Hank Williams, Billie Holiday and Doris Day, make of that what you will) or contemporary artists who aren’t considered Rock and Roll, even in my own strictly big tent version. And no playing favorites (that would, incidentally, be a different list by at least half).
With that for the context, I stuck to artists who have made five or more original, studio albums I know well enough to have what I call sequence response: That is, if I hear something from that album in some other context (radio, commercial, computer mix, etc.), I’ll likely get a little jolt of surprise when the next song I expect to hear–i.e., the next song from the original album–doesn’t follow.
I thought there would be at least ten Rock and Roll acts who met this criteria, possibly as many as fifteen or twenty.
Not even close.
I only made it to six.
Turns out five is a very high number, when it comes to making compulsory-listening albums.
And all those reasonable caveats I mentioned above do dwindle the list considerably.
Which sort of confirms a suspicion I’ve long had about my listening (and judging) habits.
I tend to go free-form (not just comps but multi-artist comps, or else a lot of running back and forth to the shelves)….or very, very concentrated (box sets, the bigger the better).
So a lot of artists who have a great box set, or made way more great tracks than required to fill five (or even ten) LPs, still don’t make my list of five actual albums–James Brown, Brenda Lee, Janis Joplin, the Impressions, Aretha Franklin (who almost made it anyway) all come readily to mind.
So do the Jackson 5 and Jackie DeShannon, if you really want to know how deep a fifty-great-tracks list might run.
One qualification that would not have expanded the list much, however, is including non-rock acts from the rock (or now post-rock) era.
Again, there are plenty of favorites who have a wealth of great sides (Bobby Bland, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, maybe a couple of dozen country singers, not just the usual–Merle, Loretta, Patsy, Waylon, George, Dolly, Buck, but lesser known geniuses like Don Gibson and Connie Smith as well). But, for any number of reasons–time and money preeminent among them–I’ve never really listened to many of their studio albums at length.
The one exception is Patty Loveless, who is also the only artist of the last quarter century in any format whose albums I have any deep, consistent connection with.
It’s not that I don’t try–and not that I don’t find an occasional LP that moves me (Pink’s Missundaztood (2001) and the Roots’ Undun (2011) are fairly recent discoveries, for instance). But, if I said I heard great stuff all the time and probably just don’t have enough time to stay caught up (a frequent excuse as we get older), I’d be lying.
So I guess I could have included Loveless–on the grounds no one’s likely to be joining her on my little list.
I didn’t, though, because I’ve written extensively about her elsewhere and, again, I wanted to get down to the nitty gritty about specifically rock and roll album acts, So suffice it to say hers would be the longest list here, and would also cover the longest time-span, exceeding even Elvis. It’s possible–just–that compiling this list has sent my respect for Ms. Loveless (aka, “the Awesome One”) even higher. Which is fine, because compiling lists like this is partly an exercise in pinpointing what we value–and partly an excuse to ruminate a bit on what it all means, not just to us, but to the Cosmos.
Which brings me to my last point:
Great rock and roll album acts–at least by my lights–tend to have a great run in them, which also tends to exhaust them on some level.
The most extreme example is the Rolling Stones. They made what I think is their greatest album in 1972, at the end of nearly a decade of sustained brilliance (and over half a decade of sustained album brilliance).
Then they were replaced by pod people.
But, except for Elvis (whose larger story is, in some ways, even more extreme), everyone on this list could be described by some version of the same story.
In rock and roll, when the real greatness goes, it tends to go fast, hard and for good (no matter how much “good” music is left–and often there’s quite a lot).
The same is true, incidentally–with little exception–for my near misses (Dylan, Aretha, Hendrix, Van Morrison, War, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rod Stewart, Led Zeppelin–see the complete list below).
These were acts that had three or four on my list and maybe a near miss or two.
The oddest cases were Dylan, who missed because I’ve never really connected with Blonde on Blonde and Morrison, who missed because I didn’t count his two fantastic albums with Them (which might be unfair, but I was sticking to the strictest criteria possible) and would have made it anyway if I’d ever connected with Astral Weeks or if my vinyl version of Into the Music didn’t have some weird fuzz on Side Two that made it unlistenable-but-unreturnable when I bought it new (and thus never replaced)!
I throw in that last to emphasize just how arbitrary such “judgments” are if you don’t get your records for free.
But I think the main point still holds. Except for Elvis (and Patty Loveless), everybody who made, or nearly made, this list, made their best five to eight (or even three to four) original albums in the space of a decade (usually much less). And that’s all irrespective of whether these are my six “favorite” artists or I think they are “the greatest.”….As it happens, my six favorite rock and roll acts, if somebody put a gun to my head, would probably look a lot different…only Elvis would be guaranteed (though the Byrds and Al Green would certainly be in strong consideration).
Make of that what you will.
In any case, I’d really like to hear from anybody who has a different take (or artists they’d put on their own list).
As you’ll see, I’m not exactly after rearranging the canon here!
(*Denotes what I think is the artists’ greatest LP, or, if you prefer, my personal favorite–order is chronological, from date of the first LP that qualified for my list).
Elvis Presley (Two gospel albums and a Christmas LP here….but I included them because that was his version of rock and roll. And he would have made the list anyway):
1957: Christmas Album
1960: Elvis is Back!
1960: His Hand In Mine
1967: How Great Thou Art
1969: From Elvis In Memphis*
1971: Elvis Country!
1975: Promised Land
1964: Meet the Beatles
1964: The Beatles 2nd
1965: Help! (UK)*
1965: Rubber Soul (US)
1966: Revolver (UK)
1968: The Beatles (White Album)
[Note: Several of the early Beatles’ LPs, especially Hard Day’s Night, would almost certainly be here (perhaps substituting for US versions) if I had acquired the UK versions back in the days when I listened to them a lot more than I do now–I’m limiting these lists to albums I actually own (a function of finance), know backwards and forwards (a function of time spent), and happen to think are great listening experiences (a function of taste). See, I told you it was arbitrary.]
The Beach Boys:
1964: All Summer Long
1965: The Beach Boys Today!
1965: Summer Days (And Summer Nights)
1967: Wild Honey*
and a fantastic live version:
1965: Mr. Tambourine Man
1965: Turn, Turn, Turn
1966: Fifth Dimension
1967: Younger Than Yesterday
1967: The Notorious Byrd Brothers*
1968: Sweetheart of the Rodeo
1969: The Ballad of Easy Rider
The Rolling Stones:
1966: Aftermath (US)
1968: Beggar’s Banquet
1969: Let It Bleed
1970: Sticky Fingers
1972: Exile on Main Street*
1971: Gets Next to You
1972: Let’s Stay Together
1973: Call Me
1973: Livin’ For You
1974: Explores Your Mind
[Note: It’s worth mentioning that, in three of the six cases here, I thought the last great album on the list was the greatest. And, in the case of the Byrds, the two albums I list after Notorious Byrd Brothers were made with significantly different lineups. So, four times out of six, some point of crisis was reached. And the artists’ in question–be it faux-Satan worshiper Mick Jagger or the Reverend Al Green–were never really the same again. Something to bear in mind in any discussion where the spiritual cost of making great rock and roll happens to come up.]
(Near misses: Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, The Everly Brothers, Rod Stewart, Prince (if I only counted doubles as two!), Aretha Franklin, War, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, The Who, The Kinks, Fleetwood Mac and, a very recent discovery, Spinners–I guess it’s pretty obvious I don’t think albums have progressed much after about the early eighties, but then, neither have singles.)
This year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ballot was released recently. I’ll have a post on all the nominees and who I voted for in the fan ballots later. First I wanted to concentrate on the acts that are the year’s two most deserving by a wide margin (not that either is being treated that way in either the press or the fan polls–wrong color), who also played a big role in the category I recently started here.
I don’t know if War was the greatest American band of the seventies–I’d call it a close run between them and Lynyrd Skynyrd–and, depending on how one defines “the Seventies” (do Creedence or Sly and the Family Stone belong?) or “American” (does Fleetwood Mac belong?), there are other contenders. But they were certainly the most Cosmic–the same way the Byrds were the most Cosmic band of the Sixties.
Cosmic as in “boundless” or “limitless.”
Or just far-reaching.
Put another way, they were the perfect band for Cosmic times. Especially Cosmic times that were beginning to close down and leave us with the set of boundaries and limits within which we now live.
They’re just buzzwords now. A big, mixed up stew of psychic jolts barely detectable from each other.
Vietnam. Watergate. Woodstock. Altamont. Manson Family. Summer of Love. Love Generation. Weatherman. SDS. Kent State. Days of Rage.
Assassination. Riot. War (the socio-political concept, not the military one that involves the truly bloody and costly task of taking and holding ground and certainly not the Cosmic band).
It’s all in the past now. Part of the times.
Except “the times” still have a hand around our throat. Our ignoring it hasn’t made it go away–just led us here, to the place of lost opportunity.
The Rising was meant to warn us, to keep us off the wrong track.
War was The Rising’s strongest voice.
For a half-decade plus–from backing Eric Burdon on 1970’s “Spill the Wine” (a far more subversive record than just about anybody has ever cared to admit–probably because it arrived at the only moment when a white man fantasizing about an orgy in the Hall of the Mountain Kings while the African Kings [albeit with a Danish harmonica player] of L.A.’s Chicano East Side laid down the funk and Miss Puerto Rico whispered sweet nothings in his ear, going #3 Billboard, seemed not all that far-fetched) on through “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” and “The World is a Ghetto” and “Cisco Kid” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends.”
Along the way, they had the best-selling album of 1973–a phenomenon (now mostly forgotten, along with the rest of The Rising) I wrote about here, plus a string of Go-rilla-sized radio hits that crossed every conceivable barrier (which I wrote about here).
So why aren’t War in the Hall already?
Well, I can only speculate–few voters or nominating committee members ever explain themselves, which is their right. But, if I had to guess, I’d say the obvious reason is the lack of a convenient hook: no charismatic leader like Sly Stone or George Clinton to attract the attention of the Radical Chic combo (black revolutionaries, white luminaries) that tends to excite intellectual discourse; no easily defined style (I read the phrase “Latin funk” a lot…er…okay); a complete misunderstanding of rock and roll history that allows those sitting in judgment to think War was “just another funk band,” ignoring how their unique style was forged from L.A. doo-wop and garage bands, late-sixties neo-soul and West Coast jazz, with respect for, but relatively little deference to, James Brown or Sly Stone (a process of assimilation which is best defined on Rhino’s great, little noted, three-volume collection Brown Eyed Soul which I can’t recommend too highly).
The greatest sin of all then.
No easy answers.
Or, to use a throwback cliche–prophets are often without honor in their own land.
More precisely and emphatically than anyone working in the seventies–in rock and roll or elsewhere–War were the prophets of the backlash present.
Hello “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” and “The World Is a Ghetto,” and “I hear you’re working for the C.I.A/They wouldn’t have you in the Maf-i-a.” Hey White America…you didn’t listen then, how’s it feel to join us, here at the precipice of the long fall defined by the new buzzwords? Decline. Collapse. Credit Default. Drone Warfare. Air Strikes. Government Shutdown. Or, the best description of the American prison system–even better than the New Jim Crow–Gulag?
Should have listened I guess.
Probably still should….
War were West Coast–East L.A. and universal. Old Testament prophets informed by a wary version of New Testament grace.
Spinners were East Coast, Philly by way of Detroit (a long apprenticeship at Motown that ended when their great, Stevie Wonder-produced breakout hit “It’s A Shame” was followed by an even greater Stevie Wonder-produced wonder called “We’ll Have it Made” which failed to cement their success).
They weren’t prophets themselves, but they served one. His name was Thom Bell and, as arranger, producer and (most often with his great partner, Linda Creed) songwriter, he operated under the guise of a Romantic Poet.
Though he had hits with a lot of artists, Bell had three principal vehicles during The Rising. Spinners (there was properly no “the” in their prime period), were the pinnacle of a crescendo that rose from the Del-fonics (very fine) and the Stylistics (truly great, but, due to their reliance on Russell Thompkin’s Jr., ultimately held within limits which Spinners, with three great leads and the kind of harmonies that come only from years of finishing each others breaths, easily transcended).
Bell had a vision that seemed apolitical. It seemed that way even on something as direct as “Ghetto Child.” It seemed that way then, and, if you don’t pay the extra-close attention which those glorious arrangements and heart-stopping vocals can so easily deflect, it might seem that way now.
Don’t be fooled. Spinners were the greatest vocal group of the last decade where that distinction meant anything. They were also the vehicle where Bell (with and without Creed) invested the best of himself.
What we want Bell and Spinners essentially said, over and over, is to belong.
If War were already counting the loss (even as they hoped for the best), Bell’s Spinners were exploring a promise that would never quite be kept…on the assumption that, even if it wasn’t, it would be worth articulating.
One of the other acts on this year’s ballot is N.W.A., the gangsta rap pioneers who eventually sprang from the Compton streets War long before warned were slipping away. I didn’t vote for N.W.A. this time around (though I think they are worthy and will get in at some point).
Put simply, the rejection of the visions War and Spinners offered during The Rising–our inability to hear and heed the warning they sometimes implied and sometimes stated openly–made N. W.A. inevitable, necessary, cathartic and nowhere near effective.
The legal barriers once confronted by the Civil Rights movement are down. They were down in 1970, when War and Spinners had their first big Pop hits.
The walls that divide the “modern” acts on this year’s ballot (indie acts like Green Day and Nine Inch Nails along with N.W.A.–page still white, ink still black, still no gettin’ together) from each other are still standing.
Higher than ever.
Really, really should have listened….Really, really still should.
Hitsville U.S.A.: The Motown Singles Collection 1959–1971 (Disc One)
“Disc One” runs through the latter part of 1964. It’s nowhere near a complete record of the label’s hits from the period–not even of its really big hits. But it’s a telling overview just the same.
For anyone who may not know, “Motown” was the brain-child of Berry Gordy, Jr., who, along with Fats Domino and Elvis Presley, was one of the three truly essential men in the rise of rock and roll from a sub-genre of rhythm and blues to the cultural cataclysm that was already well established by the time the Beatles arrived in America.
What is less well known–or at least recognized–is how much early Motown depended almost completely on singers.
Mind you, this is before the Temptations or the Four Tops or the (generally underrated) Supremes. And before Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder or even Smokey Robinson became the powerhouse geniuses of later years. This was the era of the Marvelettes and Mary Wells and one shots like Barrett Strong and the Contours.
But on the first fourteen tracks of this particular collection, which run from Strong’s “Money” to Little Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips–Part 2″ and cover four full years, there is not a single case where the lead vocal isn’t the strongest element on the record (with only the wild, doo-wopping vocal arrangement on the Contours’ “Do You Love Me” coming anywhere close to one-upping the lead).
Mind you, a good bit of the writing, producing and arranging talent that would mark mid-Sixties’ Motown’s glory run was already in place.
So were most of the crack session men who became known as the Funk Brothers.
But none of them were quite there yet, especially in the first year or two, when any new label’s very survival is at stake.
What was there was a glorious run of fantastic lead vocals. If the Supremes are underrated (far too often dismissed as producer’s pets–as though that has ever really opened a door for anyone who didn’t have the talent to step through it to begin with), then the Marvelettes and especially Mary Wells are, outside of the usual cult circles, criminally neglected.
Later on, even singers as great as the Temptations or the Tops’ Levi Stubbs or Marvin Gaye did not have to CARRY records the way the label’s early vocalists did. Beginning with Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” in the summer of 1963, the rest of the label’s talent pool began rapidly catching up. By the time the label’s really big acts broke through, the instrumental tracks alone on records like “My Girl,” or “Come See About Me” or “Uptight” or “Heard It Through the Grapevine” could have carried many a lesser talent to the top of the charts.
But there at the foundation, Barrett Strong (whose vocal on “Money” is every bit as great as John Lennon’s on the epic Beatles’ remake–it’s the rest of the track that comes short) and the young, still unpolished Smokey Robinson and Gladys Horton and Mary Wells and all the rest had to put it over on their own.
And they did.
The rest of the box lets you hear how much Berry Gordy learned from the experience–how deeply he understood the importance of voices. Because he spent the rest of the decade not only developing the locals (Tempts, Tops, Supremes and so forth) but rounding up singers like Gladys Knight and Ronnie Isley and the Spinners from afar.
Then, of course, he forgot.
Not only did he let much of that talent slip away at the end of the decade (with Knight, the Isleys and the Spinners becoming three of the biggest acts of the seventies elsewhere) but he lost the knack–or perhaps the will–to seek out new talent of the same caliber. From 1970 onward, only the Jacksons and the Commodores came anywhere close to matching the singers of Motown’s earliest days, let alone its peak.
Not coincidentally, they were the label’s biggest acts as it passed–also not coincidentally–from being an iconic cultural force to being that greatest of all American Dreams….a successful business enterprise.
I Spy: Season One (1965)
The Robert Culp/Bill Cosby spy series has been sitting on my shelf for a few years, saved for a rainy day. Lots of rainy days this week, so I began working my way in.
Nicely done for its period, meaning for any period. Of course it has weaknesses, but good things are always good. Played by two white guys it would have been just as enjoyable, assuming the second white guy was as gifted and relaxed in the role as Bill Cosby–unlikely but not entirely impossible.
But what’s really striking about this “groundbreaking” series is that, unlike pretty much every other dare television has ever taken (including, I suspect, the ones it is taking right-now-this-very-minute-in-case-you-hadn’t-heard!), it’s precisely the groundbreaking element–the easy, natural relationship between the two leads–that hasn’t dated.
I don’t mean that their relationship feels contemporary. Just that it feels like a world that never arrived.
Robert Culp’s commentary on several early episodes stresses that this particular sort of interracial relationship “had never been done,” (at least on television) and he’s right about that. The closest any white/black relationship had come anywhere on-screen to feeling so naturalistic was actually the Mammy/Scarlett duet pulled off by Ms. McDaniel and Ms. Leigh in you know what.
But Culp and Cosby went that one better because they stepped outside of the time-space continuum and made the impossible–a black American and a white American interacting on a daily basis in a public space with no sliver of race laying between them, as though history had never happened–seem easy as pie.
Culp says in his commentary that it was a conscious decision between himself and Cosby to make race a nonissue–that their statement would be to make no statement.
But I don’t think he gave himself and his co-star enough credit. There is nothing harder than making a statement by making no statement and this particular nonstatement statement has never been made quite as convincingly since.
So good for them. Good for Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, who turned out to be a couple of splendidly unique human beings.