Back in 2017, I wrote a post delving into the connections between the country churchyard where my parents are buried and the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” which you can read (and listen to) here.
Shortly after that, a kerfluffle broke out (yet again…o’er the years there have been many) on Greil Marcus’ website mailbag section, regarding whether the “Robert E. Lee” in the song was a reference to the General or a steamboat. People took it very seriously. Marcus used his in with the song’s composer, Robbie Robertson, to email him and ask direct. Robbie said “There’s no boat in the song.”
Next step in the process involved me writing into Marcus’s mailbag with my explanation for the possible source of the confusion (basically, the practical Yankee mind which knows Robert E. Lee was never in that part of the country vs. the romantic Southern mind which knows he is with us always and everywhere) to which Greil offered a brief but gracious response.
Now cut to this morning,very early in the A.M., with me sitting on the throne, fending off another coughing fit while I wait for my Covid-19 test results, reading the latest edition of Marcus’ most famous book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music.
It was first published in 1975, with six main chapters, one of which deals with the Band. I first read it in the spring of 1982, when I used the free week I had at the FSU music library before I officially became an alumni and would lose my lending privileges to check it out. I was suitably impressed, sorry I couldn’t keep it, loaned it to my mother so she could read the famous essay on Elvis which closes the book. She was less impressed. Her wise words were “Well, at least he took him seriously,” as if that was the most you could expect from an intellectual. I’ve got whole categories on this blog dedicated to the idea she was right but that’s another story for another time.
For now, I have to get back to this morning, when I was sitting in my bathroom, reading the 7th edition of the book and the third I own. For those who wonder why I would buy more than one edition of the book, it’s because with every new edition, Marcus updates a “Notes and Discography” section that, by now, is longer than the original book itself and is generally at least as interesting as the original text. Given endless resources, I’d own every edition, but as it is I’m satisfied to check in every decade or two.
This latest, however, is likely to be definitive because it’s from The Folio Society, a London house which specializes in bringing out collectible editions of classic works in all fields. I collect Folio when I can. I collect Mystery Train when I can. It made sense to celebrate my getting out of bankruptcy this Spring by ordering a copy which promises (and delivers) a bunch of stunning photos and greatly expanded Notes in addition to Folio’s usual slipcase and superior print craftsmanship.
Instead of reading the book straight through, I’ve been reading a chapter and then the notes associated with that chapter. So this morning I had finished reading the third chapter, which is the one on the Band, and was now reading the notes.
And right there on page 285, Folio Society Edition, 2020 I let my weary eyes wander down to a footnote* that takes up nearly half the page….and what do I see:
*”A week or so ago,” the musician Oliver Hall wrote in 2006, “[we] passed through Greenville, North Carolina, and a wonderful space of appearances called Spazzatorium gallery. Afterwards, we sat around with some locals and we sang loud, drunken harmony together: Woody Guthrie, Carter Family, some Civil War ballads I didn’t know (one in which “Jeff Davis rides a dappled grey mare, Abe Lincoln rides a mule”). When we were well in our cups, I began to sing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” but after the first chorus, the Southerners begged me to stop. They had tears in their eyes and said the song was too painful for them to sing.” When in 2017 an online controversy broke out over whether or not, in certain live performances, Levon (Helm) himself sang not “There goes Robert E. Lee,” in other words the person, but “there goes the Robert E. Lee,” which, as denoting a Mississippi steamship, would properly be, “the Robert E. Lee,” Robbie confirmed “There is no boat in the song.” John Ross added: “For the record, every white citizen in the South who had a living memory of the Civil War believed they had caught a glimpse of Robert E. Lee, just as every white citizen thereafter has believed they’re related to him. Stoneman’s Cavalry left from my father’s back yard and ended up in my mother’s so I know a little about this. Sorry I can’t pass on what all Virgil told my uncle. But I promise you he’d be amused by this.”
Okay, so I was a little disappointed I didn’t make the Index, like my Medium partner Lew Shiner (Marcus referenced one of his short stories in the Robert Johnson Notes). And I’ll still hope for the day when some future edition reads “novelist John Ross added:”
But, as it stands, I’ve got a worthy mention in the definitive edition of the most famous and important book of rock criticism written in the twentieth century.
10) The Prisonaires, Five Beats Behind Bars (1979)
The Prisonaires assembled in the Tennessee State Pen in the early 50’s. Their leader, Johnny Bragg, was a decade into his sentence after being convicted on six counts of rape at the age of seventeen. “Just Walking in the Rain,” a song the illiterate Bragg composed and gave a co-credit to a fellow inmate for transcribing the lyric, found its way to Sun Records and Sam Phillips after a local radio producer sent a tape of a show Bragg and his prison vocal group had performed in gaol. To hear the song now is to be caught between the last rock and the last hard place: Is this the pure expression of the soul of a rapist, or the spirit of Jim Crow being brought to its knees? The question haunts, because Bragg’s vocal is probably the most delicate ever recorded. Let out of prison on the strength of his musical ability and success, he was soon thrown back in for being caught riding in a car with a white woman: A violation of parole and never mind that she was his wife. Here’s the kicker, though. The whole thing is up to that standard, which leaves us with another question: If he’d never been in prison, would Johnny Bragg be as well known as Clyde McPhatter or never heard from at all?
9) Steely Dan Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972)
To be honest I’ve never been able to attend any of their other albums all the way through. This was one of the great debuts, though, and everything they would ever be.
You could even argue that everything they would ever be was in the first two sides, which were only “Do It Again” (a huge hit) and “Dirty Work” a non-single which has never been off the radio, whether because or in spite of vocalist-for-hire David Palmer coming as close to the spirit of Johnny Bragg as any white man who never saw the inside of a jail cell could is another question to keep you up nights while you’re trying to figure out what the crit-illuminati saw in the rest of the story.
8) Various ArtistsEasy Rider Soundtrack(1969)
If I’m being honest, I prefer listening to the soundtrack, which I’ve done three or four times, to watching the movie, which I’ve done once.
If I’m being further honest, it’s really too bad the Band’s version of “The Weight” couldn’t be used. If they had to go with Smith, they should have just put their bombastic hit version of “Baby It’s You” in the movie itself (and no, I have no idea if they had even recorded it yet). Worth all the meandering to hear Roger McGuinn close down the proceedings–and the 60’s–by reading Dylan and a version of his own self-composed title track that adds depth and nuance to the great version he did with the Byrds for their Ballad of Easy Rider LP, which is way better than either this or the movie.
7) Fairport Convention Fairport Chronicles(1976)
From 1968 to 1972, from whence the music here is drawn, Fairport and its off-shoots (Fotheringay, The Bunch) made music to equal anyone alive and this is the best of it, brilliantly programmed and sturdier than time, Stonehenge or the digital recording industry which never caught up with it. Richard Thompson was the stable genius, Sandy Denny the mercurial, self-destructive one, and for a time, they held the center of Britain’s best-ever collective of folkish musicians. It all went the way of dusty death, of course, but nothing’s ever beaten it and no CD comp comes close.
6) The El Dorados Low Mileage – High Octane: Their Greatest Recordings(1984)
Of all the bottomless rock ‘n’ roll genres, doo wop is the deepest. The El Dorados were one of the hundred or so 50’s era vocal groups that managed a hit (“At My Front Door”) among the more than ten thousand who made a record and God knows how many who tried. I’ve got a few dozen comps by the style’s “one hit wonders”….and every one of them is magnificent. Is it an accident that Black America’s tendency to ruthlessly compete against itself (on the way to competing with the world) has produced so much fine culture, and that the self-defeating tendencies of ruthlessness have forced so much of it to remain in the shadows? I don’t know…but I’ll never get tired of trying to figure it out.
5) The Clash London Calling (1979)
Did anyone else ever make a double LP where every song rode a killer riff? I don’t just mean a catchy riff, like Tusk or the White Album, but a killer riff?
If somebody did, please let me know. I mean even Exile on Main Street lets up for a song or two and Prince, well he would always start noodling after a while when you gave him that much space.
Not this. This keeps punching from beginning to end and also flows like water. For that, I can forgive the politics being a tad naive, even for 1979. Wish I could feel that way again, so this wouldn’t carry the weight of a lost time and it wouldn’t give me a sense of peace it was never mean to convey. But so it goes.
4) Joe Tex I Gotcha (1972)
Yeah, Joe Tex, who was he anyway. He’d been making records since the 50’s, had a string of hits since the mid-60’s and in 1972, this got lost. Christgau gave it a B- (and didn’t grade the next item here at all). I’m not sure anybody else mentioned it at all. Too bad. Shame on them. The man who helped invent Southern Soul and get it on the charts was still going strong. This was as good as anything released in it’s year. If Otis Redding or Al Green had done it, it would have been slavered over. But then, the white boy illuminati never did have room for more than one black southern male genius at a time. Heck, if Otis hadn’t died, I bet even Al would have been put on hold. You know that’s how it was, because this is as good as Al Green.
3) Joe Tex From the Roots Came the Rapper (1972)
So is this, which came out the same year, and without a big single (like I Gothca‘s title track), got even less attention.
Interesting that Rap became the dominant musical form of a subsequent age without ever challenging the limits of what Tex did in the early 70’s. The only people who really responded to his mix of country, soul, R&B, pop crooning and high comedy were record buyers. Plus maybe the black women he spent his career mocking, celebrating and humanizing by turns. Nobody ever got to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame doing that. If somebody ever does, it will be this guy.
2) Dion and the Belmonts 24 Original Classics(1984)
There have been a lot of ace Dion comps, up to and including his box set. This double-LP is the best (released on CD some time in the Dark Ages but evidently long out of print).
More than almost any other comp of its kind, it traces a journey–from the scorching, white hot doo wop of his youth through his dalliances with folk rock, heroin addiction, singer songwriter sensitivity, rehabilitation and a return to roots. There was more to the man to be sure–Christian music, a series of blues albums (which I really need to get hold of), and a standout version of Nick Lowe’s “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)” that might be my favorite of anything he ever did. But while I’m listening to this, I can’t be convinced anything’s been left out.
1) The Four Tops Greatest Hits (1968)
The Tops can sustain a much longer comp. Their three-record vinyl set is one of the strongest in Motown’s old Anthology series and I’ve got a 50-side double CD that does’t quit. But this straight hit between the eyes is one of life’s perfect things. I wonder how many people feel the desperation in something as jaunty sounding as “I Can’t Help Myself?” And how many think Levi Stubbs was a second-stringer based on his uncanny ability to shield them from the point? Although if you start obsessing on “Reach Out I’ll Be There” or “Standing in the Shadows of Love” where the desperation is impossible to miss–or run from–you can understand how they came out confused.
Though his family moved to Detroit when he was ten and he made his mark as a unique voice in rockabilly and later country, Jack Scott (born Giovanni Scafone, Jr.) was the first true Canadian rock and roll star. He was both more rock and roll and more Canadian than Paul Anka, who was headed to Vegas wherever he was from.
And he was a great one, racking up 19 chart hits in 41 months, a feat matched in the Rock ‘n’ Roll era only by Elvis, the Beatles, Fats Domino and Connie Francis. More importantly, he was a musical and spiritual godfather for the Band (whose original leader, Ronnie Hawkins moved from Arkansas to Canada, reversing Scott’s journey), the Guess Who, Randy Bachman, Neil Young and anybody else who made rock and roll out of Canadian roots. On the American side, he was also the first serious white rocker out of the Detroit that would produce Mitch Ryder and Bob Seger among others.
He died this past December after having a heart attack on my birthday. He left here an unjustly forgotten pioneer who worked until the very end and was more deserving of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction than any of the acts or businessmen whose inductions were announced the month after his death.
He rode slowly away to inspect the ground in front of him, between him and the Rebels. If we made a stand here, how long do you think we could hold? Long enough for John Reynolds to get here with the infantry? How long would that take? Will Reynolds hurry? Reynolds is a good man. But he might not understand the situation. How do you make him understand? At this distance. But if you hold, you at least give him time to see the ground. But how long can you hold against Lee’s whole army? If it is thewhole army. These are two very good brigades, you built them yourself. Suppose you sacrifice them and Reynolds is late? For Reynolds will be late. They’re always late.
Think on it John.
(The Killer Angels, “Monday, June 29, 1863,” Michael Shaara, 1974)
This is Michael Shaara’s interpretation of the mindset of a solider on the eve of battle, as precise and insightful as Tolstoy and even more momentous. The decisions Brigadier General John Buford made that evening and the following morning had an enormous impact on history (Tolstoy tended to focus on the futility and absurdity of such situations), altering the course of the Civil War’s most important battle and likely securing the preservation of an American Union that has gone on, for better or worse, to dominate the history of the century and a half that have passed since. Buford survived Gettysburg but was felled by scarlet fever before the year was out. He died in the rented Washington D.C. house of George Stoneman, who owes his own modern day fame to the Cavalry raid which became the source of the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and in the arms of Myles Keough, who died at Little Big Horn and owes such modern day fame as he may possess to being the subject of John Wayne’s graveside reverie in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
Any present fame Buford possesses is likely due to Shaara’s book and his being played (wonderfully) by Sam Elliott in Gettysburg, the greatest battle film ever made.
We now live in an age when the individual does not count, where anything really momentous–certainly anything of military value–has been machine-tooled, focus grouped and shaped by a committee working for the good of all mankind and little concerned with such trivial matters as victory and defeat. The idea that one man, alone, would be allowed to make such momentous decisions, let alone be forced to do so, is as alien to our world as the idea that he wouldn’t was to Buford’s. One of the many great virtues of Shaara’s novel is that it uses voluminous research to put the reader in the minds of many such men before and during the most important battle ever fought on American soil.
Dec. 16 will be the 156th anniversary of Buford’s death, at age 37. It’s not likely one American in a thousand recognizes his name. Some day soon, it won’t be one in a million.
Then Gettysburg won’t matter at all, except as a cautionary tale to whoever takes our place.
“The thing that always amazed me about Sandy, was that she thought she actually could appeal to the masses. Of course she couldn’t….If you’re writing songs that people can shoot themselves to, you know you’re not going to be in the charts.”
(Linda Thompson, wife of Sandy Denny’s greatest band-mate Richard Thompson–quoted in The Guardian, May 5, 2005)
There have been times and places where writing songs “people could shoot themselves to” has been something that could get you “in the charts” in a heartbeat.
Ask Kurt Cobain. Ask Amy Winehouse.
Ask Billie Holiday (whose “God Bless the Child,” which, yes, she wrote, didn’t go in the charts but did inspire countless covers and suicides).
Maybe Sandy Denny was just out of her time.
Else too perfectly of her time.
If she was ever too perfectly in tune with times no sane person would have wanted to be in tune with, it was 1969, when, after taking the band by storm at her audition, she released three mind-bending albums with Fairport Convention, thus inventing an English version of folk rock which had no precedents and–once Sandy Denny left the planet in such short order–could have no heirs.
By her third album with Fairport, Liege & Lief, she had taken command.
Being the sort of whirlwind spirit you’d expect on the evidence of Linda Thompson’s quote, the music she made in ’69 (the year she almost made it in the charts) and every picture she ever took, she then moved on: to another band; to a solo career; to a duet with Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant on his band’s most monumental album that was a match for any vocal in the history of sound.
And thence to a solo career and a downward spiral into alcoholism, depression, self-destruction, coma and death.
All within eight years.
Listening to her in ’69, when it must have been possible–for her or anyone–to think no one who sang with that much death in her voice could possibly fail to become an era-defining star while so much death was in the air, one is compelled to wonder whether her future, or ours, could have been different.
1969 was not just any year historically, nor was it just any year vocally.
It was the year of Elvis Presley’s Memphis sessions, Dusty Springfield’s Memphis sessions (which were then re-created in New York), Jerry Butler’s Iceman sessions, Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul, Merle Haggard’s usual three fine albums, Marvin Gaye’s “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby”–great enough to bridge “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and What’s Going On–and that’s just a sampling of the big names).
For life-defining vocals, no year ran deeper.
And Sandy Denny might have had the greatest year of all.
In any year, her combination of power and delicacy was unique. The number of vocalists who could go toe-to-toe with Robert Plant at full tilt is limited. Those who could then deploy a wistful soprano to dive as far inside a song as Billie Holiday make up a list of one.
It is hard to be one of anything.
It must have been something more than hard (and I almost wrote “worse” when I might have meant “better”–she’ll do that to you) to carry the spirit of Stonehenge single-handed into the Age of Aquarius.
Perhaps that’s why, as the year goes on–record by record–she sounds more desperate and more determined.
Bad news, bad news, come to me where I sleep she sings on the year’s midpoint second album (Unhalfbricking, which also contained her rollicking French version, definitive in any language and her one ride up the charts, of “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”). The lines are Bob Dylan’s. The moment she sings them, you know they’ll never again belong to him or anyone else.
Except maybe the other version of Sandy Denny, who laid down another album or two’s worth of stellar work on the BBC in the same year she made What We Did On Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking, and Liege & Lief :
To listen to it all at once is to be swamped by the notion that sex and desire-the things rock and roll had seemed designed to liberate–have been turned into a series of dungeons under a world of prisons.
If that sounds like a fun place to be then the Sandy Denny of Liege &Lief, in particular, will be the love of your life and–except for maybe the Sandy Denny of other albums here and there–all substitutes will seem silly by comparison.
Even I, with my interest in singers who might have made a deal with the Devil, (because, darn it, deals with the Devil are inherently interesting even if they’re also inherently speculative), have to acknowledge something deeper than speculation is at work in Denny’s voice. Like God, Satan moves in mysterious ways…only the True Believers, the Fundamentalist and the Atheist, forever joined at the hip, manage to convince themselves of either his obviousness or his absence.
And, spectacular as her range was, it was only half the story. Calling her a hard soprano only goes part-way to explaining how she relentlessly, to the point of exhaustion, reached places unavailable to other sopranos. The rest is mystery.
Her first two Fairport albums drew plenty of comparisons to the Band, which was odd since the Band created musical excitement by trading rough-hewn voices, fitted into each other by thousands of nights on the road, while Denny’s band seemed built to contain her one minute and elevate her the next.
She and her mates were barely together a year-and-a-half and spent enough of that time in the studio to record three albums, the last in the throes of an accident that killed drummer Martin Lamble and Thompson’s girlfriend, Jeannie Franklyn–and I wonder if anyone thought Death wasn’t going to follow Sandy Denny around?
Not these people surely….
That’s where the Fairport/Denny collaboration started. In the space of two albums it went everywhere. Well, everywhere Death went anyway. In the beginning, Iain Matthews could lay down what I’ll swear to this day is a vocal nobody could snatch from under him–and no matter how many times I’ve heard it, I never believe even powerhouse Sandy Denny could take it away until the very moment, at the top of the third line, when she does….by going quieter….Or that anyone could grab it back after handing it back the first time….until, with a single powerhouse interpolation in the fade, she does.
All that plus her standard, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” (which she’d already recorded with Strawbs in ’67, and seen become a hit for Judy Collins, who had every bit of Denny’s range and none of her mystery–none of her relationship with the Middle Ages, or her certainty, circa 1969, that the future was just one more past waiting to be reborn), and none of it really preps you for where she took the band, the world and herself on Liege & Lief.
Lief, released in December, Fairport’s third album in twelve months, is essentially a Denny solo record (albeit with strong support), and here at last is what she had probably had in mind all along–what Linda Thompson meant when she gave the quote above, years after Denny’s death. It’s an album filled with murder and other morbid sorts of ballads and a vocal approach so devoid of pop sheen it makes Music from Big Pink sound like The Archies Dig Christmas!
It’s not an easy listen, either aesthetically or emotionally. Getting it, even getting at it, requires a spiritual and physical commitment something akin to what the singer is putting in from the other side.
Death and Sex in other words.
You up for that?
If you are–and I was, once–be prepared to encounter not merely a bleak vision but an intricately defined twilight world, full of sharp detail one moment and movement in the shadows that never moves from the corner of your mind’s eye the next, where everyone’s trapped behind castle walls and the only viable sex is an endless cycle of rape and childbirth and revenge where and you will love your child is a curse.
You didn’t forget she had a deal with the Devil did you?
It turned out the Sandy Denny who chased stardom through three bands in four years and laid down tracks as scarifying as this along the way…
was only playing around.
Her voice had always been poised between acceptance and revenge.
I’ll kill myself…but only if I convince myself I can’t kill you instead.
There was always more than a hint of real terror in the concept and it’s heightened on Liege & Lief, where”Tam Lin” and “Matty Groves” go on forever…until you get them, after which you’re mostly just afraid for them to end.
This is not the silliness of something like The Handmaid’s Tale….a fantasy about a future world ruled by Fundamentalist Christians who have developed ideas about women and fertility that are remarkably similar to those of certain contemporary jihadis Margaret Atwood or the honchos at Hulu dare not call out for fear of discovering who the really dangerous people are. No, it’s dread that predates our modern ideas of merely having fantasies spoiled and calling it persecution.
At least that was how I heard it the last time I listened…maybe the first time I truly got it.
I could imagine the spell–that is the right word–breaking.
I could wake up tomorrow and find it gone. I could imagine never listening to Liege & Lief again (though, oddly, not “Nottamun Town.”) I could imagine being relieved if that were the case.
But I know I’d be a fool if I tricked myself into thinking I had reached a better understanding or gotten to the bottom of the dungeon.
What Sandy Denny produced in 1969–the way she used that hard soprano’s most startling and pitiless elements to invent a world as new as tomorrow’s gloomy sunrise and discover one as old as a cave painting–was a body of work any artist worthy of the name would kill for if only it could be got by bending to man’s baser nature.
Alas, 1969 was the peak.
Perhaps there was nowhere to go but down.
In any case, down she went.
There was another year, another band (Fotheringay). Then she rode high with Led Zeppelin in their finest hour (as their only guest vocalist and you can hear why even they might have been a little shy of taking it any further). She partied hard with the rowdiest English rock and rollers, determined to drink every one of them under the table. She made four solo albums.
There was a tempestuous marriage and a child who was soon taken from her for the child’s own good.
Then she took to making dramatic falls, some intentional, some not. Some down stairways, one of which finally damaged her brain.
Either that or the booze finally put her in a coma, where, in 1978, six weeks before I graduated high school, blissfully and painfully unaware of her existence, she died of old age at 31, still waiting, in some sense, to be discovered by the people who wanted to shoot themselves.
One more victim of the 60s. then.
I expect she’ll still be here–or there–when we’re all back where we belong.
I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating. The hardest part about blogging (for me at least) is deciding what to write about. I always have a few longing posts incubating. Some sit for months or even years before the mood to polish them off strikes.
But mostly, ideas come and go. Several times a day. Sometimes more. The hardest part is avoiding politics. I know I write about them here and there, especially the Age of Trump, but it’s not what I want this blog to be about. If I ever decide to go heavy on it, I’ll start another blog–probably called No Comfort here. That should put me at the top of the charts!
This week been more interesting than most, because I’ve become self-conscious about the process. Here I sit wondering whether I should write next about Cyndi Lauper (or just She’s So Unusual, or maybe Twelve Deadly Cyns, or just “Money Changes Everything,”) except I really need to get back to John Ford or Elvis and I’ve got that Handy Ten on Golden Age Westerns to finish off plus my favorite Various Artists box set (Philly Soul) and six or seven other topics to consider, when all of a sudden, just this morning (early, before the sun came up), I’m listening to the Byrds and thinking This, this is what I should be writing about, and then Vivien Leigh pops into my head and I ask myself how it’s possible I’ve been writing this blog for six-and-a-half years without ever attempting to do her justice (given that no one else has managed it, should’t I at least try)?
And, you know, the chances are at least fifty-fifty, the next thing I write about won’t be any of those things.
It probably won’t even be about the paradigm shift I see happening in the two major political parties which will either lead to a reversal of voting bases (like 1980) or priorities (like 1932) or the elimination of one or the other to be replaced by something new (like 1860).
It probably won’t even be my response to Terry Teachout’s long interview about the Band, where he opined, among other things, that their first two albums were the only “adult” music being made at the time (1968-70) in what I like to call Rock and Roll America.
Boy, will I have something to say about that some day….unless, by chance, all the “some days” become consumed by all those other things I’m sure I’ll have something say about…
Last week I made the four-hour drive to Monroeville, Alabama (home town of Harper Lee and Truman Capote) to meet my sister and her boyfriend for a holiday reading of Capote’s short story “A Christmas Memory,” (which I didn’t mind telling the folks, including the actress who One-Woman-Showed the story so beautifully, was the subject of the essay that won me the Freshman English Award for 1979 at Chipola Junior College, which sits a little less than half-way between me and Monroeville). It was a lovely experience in itself–the reading takes place every year in the courthouse where Lee’s father practiced law, which was meticulously copied for the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. A good time was had by all.
But, for me, the arrival is mostly an excuse for the journey. For whatever reason, I never feel any music has proved itself fully until it proves itself on the road.
Here’s what proved itself last week:
Aftermath (UK Version) The Rolling Stones (1966)
I’ve always loved the American version of Aftermath, always thought it was the peak of the Brian Jones years and the first time Mick had his act together for an entire album. Imagine my disappointment a decade or so back, when I managed to score all the Stones’ original UK albums at Best Buy for bargain prices (if you want to know how fast the world moves, try and imagine anything like that happening at Best Buy, or any other box store now–such experiences have gone the way of searching the 45 and cutout bins at Woolworth’s and in less than half the time) and discovered that the UK version of my favorite from the Stone’s early period was missing “Paint It Black” not to mention the perfect running order of the US version, climaxing with the eleven minutes of “Going Home” one of the all time LP closers. Plus, the great, disorienting American cover–so in tune with the album’s sound–had been re-replaced by the much more generic cover it had replaced in the first place.
Aftermath (US Version) The Rolling Stones (1966)
I listened through dutifully, of course. Then I dismissed it to the shelves, where it had remained ever since. If I wanted to hear Aftermath, I got out my old US version on vinyl.
But a funny thing happened a few years ago. My replacement CD player–in every respect but one superior to the really old one that died–was supposed to be a stop-gap until I could afford a good one. Still waiting for that day (the cheap ones that are still readily available. in places like Best Buy, don’t have a cable hookup compatible with my head-phones…which are not cheap). In the meantime, I discovered the one respect in which my newer (still not very new) player was at a disadvantage compared to my old one.
Won’t play my Rolling Stones’ CDs before Sticky Fingers. (NOTE: From Sticky Fingers on, I have everything through Emotional Rescue, but issued on the Stones’ own label, rather than ABKCO and hence playable–what this means, in practice, is that I’ve been listening to a lot of 70s Stones, about which, perhaps more later. I also have one of their later albums. Talk about things that don’t get played.)
It also won’t play my Kinks’ albums and a few others (like ABKCO’s fine Animals’ comp). Annoying. I really need to find a solution.
Meanwhile, the one place I can hear those albums (other than my computer, which I’m not fond of using as a listening station–I have enough trouble concentrating as it is!) is in my car.
And I usually listen on long trips. Which I don’t take much anymore. You know, due to being broke.
But when I do take trips, I choose the music pretty carefully. Quite often, I take things I think might deserve some sort of second chance or closer attention than I’ve been willing or able to give them previously.
And Between the Buttons, which I’ve never really been able to get into–and which ABKCO re-released in its American version anyway.
In its UK version.
Which, I learned on the back roads of southwest Georgia and southeast Alabama, is great!
I’m still not sure I can ever make the leap and completely give myself over to an Aftermath which sticks “Goin’ Home” in the middle and denies the listener “Paint it Black,” but what’s there definitely makes its own statement…and makes me want to get that good CD player real soon!
After that, my attention gradually wandered. Just like always. I’m still not sure why. Is it because that’s about the time Brian Jones transitioned from inspiration to “problem?” Is it merely coincidence that I’ve still never heard the followup, Their Satanic Majesties Request (their last with Jones fully on board) in its entirety? I’ll want to correct that oversight some day, but you can see where it’s not a priority when it’s unlikely I can listen to it anywhere but the car.
Meanwhile…man was Aftermath a revelation!
Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player Elton John (1973)
And I will admit that Between the Buttons was still more engaging than Elton John’s Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player, which seemed too cute by half, starting with the almost great title. Has any piano player working a joint where he was likely to be shot at ever said “only” instead of “just?” Just asking.
Otherwise, Elton’s usual mixed bag. It did yield “Elderberry Wine” and “Midnight Creeper” which were new to me and hardly nothing. But south Alabama does not offer a lot of distractions. It’s not hard to concentrate on the music when it’s giving something back and, except for those two, and the inevitable radio classics (“Daniel” and “Crocodile Rock,” which I confess, though still fine, are not the most inevitable) I found it hard not to let my mind wander off through the pines.
Which brought me a little past the half-way point of the outward journey and this…
The Essential Tom T. Hall: The Story Songs (1988)
There was no problem with attention spans here. It’s quiet as death, first story to last. I’ve had the vinyl version for years but just recently acquired the CD. Been waiting for a chance to be alone with it. South Alabama seemed as good a place as any. The last hour of a drive to the birthplace of the author of In Cold Blood seemed as good a time.
It was almost too much. Taking in twenty of Tom T. Hall’s stories at once on a lonely stretch of southern highway with ghosts all around is like submitting yourself to three straight productions of Chekov–interspersed with a unique style of absurdist comedy, most of it of the quiet chuckle and shake the head variety, until all the moods merge in his scariest song, a tale of mass murder and the death penalty that creates a black hole even the Rolling Stones could never approach. To think he ever sang it on television is more surreal than L’Age d’Or.
it was probably just as well the outward journey came to an end just about the time “Before Jessie Died” closed things down.
As often happens, I was able to separate the journey from the arrival and thoroughly enjoy myself. But when I headed home a day-and-a-half later, I was glad I had brought something to continue the mood. Hated to leave all those ghosts just hanging about out there.
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Anthology Warren Zevon (1996)
I think I probably just grabbed this one out of instinct. I’ve had it a while. I play it a lot. It goes a little slack in the middle of the second disc.
But something must have been nudging me, saying “you’ll need this.”
After Tom T. Hall and (speaking of Chekovian moods) “A Christmas Memory,” I needed it. It delivered, too, eased me right back into my Dr. Sardonicus mode, very handy for living and driving.
And then, right in the middle of that second disc that goes slack here and there (not so bad on the road, really–sometimes you can use a break from anything), Zevon started merging with Barry Seal. I started asking myself things like: Did Warren Zevon just decide at some point he was only going to write songs about Barry Seal…or did Barry Seal decide he wanted to live his life like a Warren Zevon song? it’s a legit question because, really, it could have happened either way. And once the connection was made, I couldn’t break it. The question rose, track after track: Could this be Barry? And the answer came back every time: You bet. And not always in obvious ways.
It was spooky. I’m not sure I can convey how spooky, even as it made me laugh like a loong. It’s possible I can never listen to this again. At least not without watching the movie too (whether before or after is something I’ll have to work on).
Well, you can imagine what kind of mood that left me in. The choice for the home leg was John Mellencamp or bootleg Dylan.
Bob Dylan Live 1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4 (Officially Released 1998)
Come on. Barry Seal and Warren Zevon had just merged in my head. What choice?
And this is something I’ve been wanting to give a real chance, since it’s never really reached me. I never heard the famous bootleg that circulated for years, but I heard plenty about it, so being a big Dylan fan, and having been assured-to-the-point-of-annoyance by all in the know that I hadn’t really heard Dylan until I heard this, I snapped it up the minute it became available in 1998. After it did not survive the Great CD Selloff of 2002, I didn’t make a high priority of reacquiring it, but it wasn’t something I could safely leave alone, so I picked it up again a few years ago.
And had the same reaction I had the first time around, which was: Meh.
It happens sometimes. An album acquires so much mythic weight that, by the time you finally get to hear it, probably nothing could live up to the expectations generated by the intervening years.
Certainly not this….One CD of Dylan alone, breathing (as Greil Marcus would have it) ver-y-y-y-y softly. One CD of him and the band (the Hawks, soon to be the Band) assaulting their amps–and the crowd–with white noise. Plus English people shouting stuff you can’t make out without an interpreter.
But, being fair, I had never road-tested it.
Sure enough, it kinda’ sorta’ revealed itself. Mostly by reversing itself.
Dylan’s real assault on his audience–the one in the hall (which, yes, we know, wasn’t the Royal Albert Hall that had been advertised all those bootleg years), and, by extension, the one beyond the hall, the one that had cheered his every move before dividing over his move to Rock and Roll–came in the “quiet” early part of the show.
That’s the part where he refuses to give anything at all. The singing is flat, even for his oh-so-sincere, folkie voice. There are no jokes, no repartee, no pronouncements, no attempt to be liked or disliked. Nothing. One song, breathed softly. Then another, breathed even more softly.
Let me tell you, divested of Dylan-being-Dylan, they mean less than you think, at least on the back roads of Alabama.
But the one thing about having the CDs queued up in the car is there’s no pause to switch the discs.
And it was only in that context that the white noise finally made sense.
Turns out, sucking all the life out of “Just Like a Woman” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” was prelude, a perfect setup. One can hear why people were shocked-to-the-bone by the juxtaposition (there must have been some sense in the hall, even if only subconscious, that Dylan’s sermon-straight reading of his most sacred texts had been a form of mockery….although I grant you a really determined folkie can miss a lot).
Quiet as a mouse, moment after moment for an hour. Then this…
And then on like that for most of another hour.
At least on the back roads of Alabama, nothing could live up to that first shock wave, not even the cataclysmic version of “Like a Rolling Stone” that closes the show.
But I finally got what all the excitement was/is about.
Whether I’ll ever want to listen to that first disc again, just so I can find out if the jolt at the top of the second transcends first experience, is a question I’ll have to leave for another day.
The Vietnam War–A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: The Soundtrack (2017)
I haven’t seen Ken Burns’ latest on The Vietnam War (which I notice sustains the implicit arrogance of so many of his other titles–The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, etc.–the persistent implication that he has rendered the last word on each subject in turn, and one need look no further).
But the two-disc soundtrack (thirty-seven tracks in all) looked promising, maybe because I didn’t read too carefully past the head-spinning, conceptually heart-stopping triple-header near the top of the first disc: “It’s My Life,” “Eve of Destruction,” “Turn, Turn, Turn.”
Now that I’ve had the soundtrack experience, I can make the following observations.
First: It’s never a good sign when “flimmakers” insist on putting their names in the title of their film. It’s really not a good sign when they insist on putting their names on the title of the soundtrack.
Second: The cover’s as pedestrian, and perversely revealing, as the title. Wonder how the big shots at PBS would have reacted if Burns and company had insisted on an image that reversed the positions of the American fighting man and the Vietnamese peasant above? Wonder how they would have reacted if they had reversed the positions and then replaced the image of the Vietnamese peasant with an image of a North Vietnamese fighting man? Wouldn’t that have been a least a little unsettling?
Third: And shouldn’t we want a thirty-seven track soundtrack of The Vietnam War to be at least a little unsettling?
I’m not saying nothing good happens. That triple-header is all it promised to be, even coming out of a pedestrian country number (Johnny Wright’s Country #1, “Hello, Vietnam,” which, along with Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” is supposed the represent the Pro-War, or at least Pro-American Fighting Man position, which, if you’re gonna go there, why not pick a blood-and-guts number like “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” which is also a better record). Ray Charles’ take on “America the Beautiful” is a great setup for “What’s Going On.” And having Janis Joplin bleed out of Bob Dylan’s folk-phase version of his own “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” provides one of those recontextualizing jolts that make such comps worth our attention in the first place.
But, my God, what a missed opportunity.
Not having seen it, I can’t speak for the way the music is used in the series (the more accurate description for the “film” in question), but there were a few good ways to go with the soundtrack and whoever did the choosing, chose “none of the above.”
One good way, would have been just a straight run of the “iconic music of the Vietnam era” promised by the cover.
That would have meant including “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and both the Dylan and Hendrix versions of “All Along the Watchtower.” That would have meant more than one Creedence number (and if there was only one, it should have been “Fortunate Son” or “Run Through the Jungle” not “Bad Moon Rising,” great and appropo as it is). That would have meant the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” over the Temptations’ relatively pedestrian “Psychedelic Shack,” and their “We Can Be Together” over the Beatles’ “Let It Be” as an album closer, with the Fabs represented instead by “Hey Jude,” or “Revolution” or something from The White Album. That would have meant the Band’s “The Weight.” That would have meant including Edwin Starr’s “War” and the Chambers’ Brothers “Time Has Come Today” and the Supremes’ “Reflections.” That would have meant a track or two from the Doors and adding the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” to their “Gimme Shelter.” That would have meant the Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.” That would have meant Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “500 Miles” as a side-opener (instead of Dylan’s blustering and not nearly as convincing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”)
Well, none of that happened.
Which would be fine if, instead, those choosing had come up with inspired numbers from the Secret Sixties and used this high-profile opportunity to introduce new audiences to not-so-well-known numbers which caught–and still catch–the tenor of the times as well as anything even if they were never big hits. Think the Mamas and the Papas of “Straight Shooter” (or, as I never fail to mention “Safe in my Garden”). Think the Peter, Paul and Mary of “Too Much of Nothing.” (Dylan, incidentally, is the only artist who gets three cuts here. There should be less of Dylan the singer and more of Dylan the writer. Standing this close to Janis Joplin or Eric Burdon, forget the Howlin’ Wolf or Wilson Pickett or “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” he does not come off well absent his rock and roll voice.)
Anyway back to thinking: Think the Supremes of “Forever Came Today.”Think the Shangri-Las of “Never Again” or “I’ll Never Learn.” Think the Fairport Convention of “Nottamun Town” or “Meet on the Ledge” or even “I’ll Keep it With Mine” instead of “The Lord is in This Place” (fine and haunting, but too much of a mood piece to stand between “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “For What It’s Worth” without being diminished and diminishing them in turn, something a well made comp should never do).
And still thinking: Think the Byrds of “Goin’ Back” or “Draft Morning,” or even “The Ballad of Easy Rider.” Think the Waylon Jennings of “Six White Horses.” Think the Nancy Sinatra of “Home.”
Think all the beach soul numbers that carried a hint of warning behind even the most positive dance-happy messages (Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs on “May I” or the Tams on “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy”–think what that must have felt like if you heard it in Saigon while you were waiting for the next chopper out.
One could go on. One could on so far as to have used these numbers to fill an entire soundtrack by themselves.
Or one could have gone yet another, third, direction and used them as stitching between the more obvious anthems and constructed a soundtrack that wouldn’t quit and wouldn’t die.
Of course, for that, you would have needed less taste and more guts.
Nothing Ken Burns or PBS would ever be accused of, I’m sure.
Absent all that, unless you really need Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” in a context where you don’t have to listen to him sing for a whole album without the Weavers, I say give this one a pass.
Me, I always liked Dave Marsh’s idea that if “Leader of the Pack” had come out a year later, it would have been heard as a much better metaphor for the unfolding quagmire from which we have never emerged.
And, for the record, I wouldn’t really have closed with “We Can Be Together.” I’d of let that be penultimate (replacing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and closed with this, from the truly “closing” year of 1972.
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea, The plowman homeward plods his weary way, And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
(Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”)
Virgil Caine is the name and I served on the Danville train, ‘Til Stoneman’s Cavalry came and tore up the tracks again…
(The Band, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”)
I’ve mentioned before that I drive a hundred miles each way to put flowers on my mother’s grave every Mother’s Day. My parents are the only appointed missionaries buried at the oldest Baptist church in Florida (est. 1825). Every year, I walk around to see who has died. Every year, one or two familiar names are added (usually wives joining husbands long passed). Every year, I note the military ranks of many of the departed. It’s a small church with a small graveyard so the military mentions toward the middle and back of the cemetery are a smattering.
Korea (my Sunday School teacher, he never mentioned it).
WWII (the man who loaned us money to travel home to see family the first Christmas we moved there, he never mentioned it…this year, he was joined by his daughter, a college teacher who wrote the letter of recommendation that helped me get a job at the Southern Baptist Convention’s center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina in the summer of ’79….else her husband…the grave was fresh dug, no stone yet).
WWI. (too far back for me to know them personally though the names suggest I knew their heirs).
At the front, the names are somewhat more numerous. Up in that part of the churchyard, the military designation is always CSA. Some of them died in what they would have called The War Between the States, some after. Whenever they died, an alarming number bear birth dates of 1848, 1849, 1850. By the end, the CSA was calling up fifteen-year-olds.
That’s what happens at the end, when your life is at stake.
I never had much sympathy for the Lost Cause or Ye Olde Confederacy. A permanent curse on the slaveocracy who cast their permanent curse on us. As much as I know anything, I know if we’d somehow managed to win, we’d have been the Balkans and the USA would have been some hellish combination of Germany and Russia. Best that it worked out as it did.
But I don’t like to run from the past either.
If I’d been born in 1849, I know where my bones would lie…and I don’t doubt the military designation on my grave would read CSA. If not in this churchyard, then some other, because I doubt there’s a vintage cemetery in the parts of the South where my folks came from that doesn’t have an even longer row of the Lost Cause’s Honored Dead.
Hell, by the time Stoneman’s Cavalry rode their last, ” just eighteen” was an old man in the army of the CSA.
And it’s not like I have to project.
When Stonewall Jackson’s West Point roommate, George Stoneman, rode out to exact the final vengeance for his humiliation at Chancellorsville (the high tide of both the Confederate States of America and his roommate’s brilliant career, which ebbed away in an instant when a unit from my mother’s home state mistook Jackson for the enemy in the gloaming and mortally wounded him), he left from Knoxville, Tennessee, twenty miles from my father’s stone-cold Unionist home town (where the college my father had not quite graduated from when Pearl Harbor re-directed his life down a path that eventually led him to the bible college that sits seven miles from where my parents are buried, was founded by one of the South’s now forgotten fire-breathing abolitionists and where my father’s older relatives nonetheless had living memories of chasing cows into the woods to keep the Yankees from confiscating them), and reached its turn-back point in Salisbury, North Carolina, where my mother grew up learning to hop trains in the hobo jungle in the days when the legends of Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie were still aborning.
From this distance, I can be glad the Yankees won, even in this age when we seem so determined to throw it all away.
But when I’m walking through a country churchyard down here, mulling the gravestones, there’s no way for it not to be a little bit personal.
Even from this distance.
This month is the thirtieth anniversary of my mother’s death. But you know what Faulkner said. In the South, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
And, as he did not quite say: “Would that it were.”
Rest of ya’ll will know what we know soon enough. I give it not more than a century and it will pass in the blink of an eye. Then you won’t care if the money’s no good either.
Enjoy this hard and bitterly won space while you can.
I don’t want to make a habit of this. I prefer to generate my own ideas/content. But the more I thought about this, the more the challenge/absurdity made me smile….So, again from one of those memes that’s going around…(tried to link live versions where available.)
The 30 Day Song Challenge…(I think the idea is to name the first song you love that comes to mind. Anyway that’s the spirit I’m taking.)
1. A song you like with a color in the title
Three Dog Night, “Black and White” (D. Arkin-E. Robinson)
2. A song you like with a number in the title
The Marvelettes, “Beechwood 4-5789” (M. Gaye, M. Stevenson, G. Gordy)
3. A song that reminds you of summertime
First Class, “Beach Baby” (J. Carter, G. Shakespeare) (Obvious, sure, but there was a speeding ticket involved.)
4. A song that reminds you of someone you would rather forget about
The Bangles, “James” (V. Peterson) (Dude tried to kick me in 8th grade. He missed, which kept us both from being suspended, but I’m still glad Vicki dumped him. Just wish she’d ended up with me!)
5. A song that needs to be played loud
The Bay City Rollers, “Rock and Roll Love Letter” (T. Moore) (Up loud–louder than your computer can go–it’s the record KISS always wanted to make. Trust me.)
6. A song that makes you want to dance
The Jackson 5, “ABC” (B. Gordy, F. Perren, A. Mizell, D. Richards) (Although, these days, it’s more accurate to say it makes me wish I still could.)
9. A song that makes you happy
The 4 Seasons, “Walk Like a Man” (B. Gaudio, B. Crewe)
10. A song that makes you sad
The Go-Go’s, “Daisy Chain” (J. Wiedlin, K. Valentine, J. Sobule) (End of youth…at least death doesn’t linger so…great video though.)
11. A song that you never get tired of
Roger Miller, “King of the Road” (R. Miller) (It’s the finger-snaps, mostly…but hand claps will do.)
12. A song that you love from 2011
Look, I may not be part of the solution, but I refuse to be part of the problem.
13. One of your favorite Seventies songs
Dionne Warwicke & the Spinners, “Then Came You,” (S. Marshall, P. Pugh) (Yes, she added an “e’ to her name in those years.)
14. A song that you would love played at your wedding
Given my state of confirmed bachelorhood, I’ll take a pass….unless I can still play “Then Came You.”
15. A song that is a cover by another artist
Linda Ronstadt, “You’re No Good” (C. Ballard, Jr.) (I think this category is probably made for Linda Ronstadt.)
16. One of your favorite songs from a movie
Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, “You’re the One That I Want” (J. Farrar) (Unless they meant the way a song is used in a movie, in which case a toss-up between Kansas’ “Carry On Wayward Son” from Heroes, or the Bellamy Brothers’ “Let Your Love Flow” from Little Darlings….my favorite performance of a song in a movie is Ginger Rogers, doing I. Berlin’s “The Yam,” in Carefree, but I confess I don’t listen to it much unless I can watch her dance.)
17. A song that features your favorite artist
Elvis Presley, “It Hurts Me” (J. Byers, C. Daniels)
18. A song from the year you were born
Larry Verne, “Mr. Custer” (A. De Lory, F. Darian, J. Van WInkle) (It was a sign, believe me.)
19. A song that makes you think about life
The Trashmen “Surfin’ Bird” (A. Frazier, C White, Sonny Harris, Turner Wilson Jr.)
20. A song that reminds you of your mom
The Band, “Ain’t No More Cane” (Traditional) (This is one where I’m sorry the studio version isn’t available.)
21. A favorite song with a person’s name in the title
Dion, “Abraham, Martin and John” (D. Holler) (I took this to mean a real person’s name.)
22. A song that motivates you
To do what?
23. A song that you think everybody should listen to
Percy Sledge, “Out of Left Field” (D. Penn, S. Oldham)
24. A song by a band/group you wish were still together
See the Go-Go’s and the Bangles herein. All the other bands/groups I wish were still together have at least one key member deceased, so I’ll pass.
25. A song by an artist no longer living
The Rolling Stones, “Brown Sugar” (M. Jagger, K. Richards) (Choose “taken over by pod people, 1973” or “Devil cashed check, same year.” Either way, they’re deceased.)
26. A song that makes you want to fall in love
Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose, “It’s Too Late to Turn Back Now,” (E. Cornelius) (Actually, it did, once…at least I called it love. I mean, I got nauseous and everything.)