SOONER OR LATER, THEY’LL COME FOR SOMETHING YOU CARE ABOUT….

Because it’s not about the Confederacy…and it’s not about statues:

Liverpool’s Penny Lane…

Philadelphia’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution…

…Next?

Don’t worry. If you don’t care about these, they’ll be around for you soon. Then you can scream “But I’m a liberal!” and give them a chance to say “We know. Thank you!”

OH, CANADA…AND SO MUCH MORE (Jack Scott, R.I.P.)

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.

They forgot.

We ain’t forgot….

TRACK-BY-TRACK: THE TEMPTATIONS SING SMOKEY

The Temptations Sing Smokey (1965)
The Temptations

Continuing with the in-depth presentation of my 20 favorite Vocal Albums. I’m up to #5 (And 1965, which is going to be a very big year for this concept):

Any list of competitors for the not-so-imaginary title of Greatest Rock and Roll Vocal Group doesn’t need your toes to count: The Everly Brothers, Beatles, Beach Boys, Mamas & Papas, Impressions, Spinners, Four Seasons. You can argue all day long about who’s #2.

There’s no argument about #1.

Close harmony might belong to one of the white groups (white musicians tend to prize order). But the Temptations, who were better than fine with close harmony, could do more of everything else and do it better while the Motown machine assured they would never lack for first rate material. If White America–well, the crit-illuminati anyway–hadn’t been so stuck on the auteur theory, developed for film but lying handy and transferable to anything, and been averse, consciously or subconsciously, to the idea that Black America could do more than dance and snap its fingers, the Tempts’ early albums (which I wrote about here) would have been treated as seriously as contemporary efforts by the Beatles, Stones and Beach Boys.

Since this was their tribute to Smokey Robinson, who may or may not have once been called America’s greatest living poet by Bob Dylan, but fit the bill in any case, it was the best material they ever got. Although the album was assembled from a putative hodgepodge–a hit from their debut album combined with material Smokey had written for himself, the Tempts and/or other acts–it coheres like a concept LP because Smokey was a conceptual artist and because this is the rare, possibly unique, “tribute” album where the subject of the tribute is producing it himself.

Call it their Rubber Soul….unless of course it makes more sense to call Rubber Soul, released nine months later, the Beatles’ natural answer to The Temptations Sing Smokey.

“The Way You Do the Things You Do”–Berry Gordy had been trying to break the Temptations (previously the Primes–the only better name change was the Primettes becoming the Supremes) for a while and finally gave them to his best friend with the instruction to “get some hits on these guys.” This was the breakout, with Smokey switching the emphasis from Paul Williams’ gravelly baritone to Eddie Kendricks’ ethereal tenor, and then using one of Marvin Tarplin’s indelible guitar lines and the Tempts’ own clever harmony arrangement (beefing up every other line in the verses, call and response alternating with close harmony in the chorus) to get Eddie within range of a Smokey Robinson lead. In the fifty-five years since, it’s never been off the radio.

“Baby, Baby I Need You”–One of the last sides recorded with original member Al Bryant just after Robinson took over the reins but before David Ruffin replaced Bryant. Did I mention they were just fine with close harmony? This is the closest the album gets to their doo wop roots and gorgeous.

“My Girl”–Smokey was determined to get a showcase for Ruffin. He got it. This is one of those records that’s now so deeply embedded in the culture it feels like it must have been breathed into being rather than composed but what’s really miraculous is how complicated the simple arrangement sounds. It fills the ear the way “I Get Around” fills the ear, but it’s devoid of spectacle, all nuance and shading. Well, maybe except for that opening guitar line (from Marvin Tarplin again).

“What Love Has Joined Together”–A straight remake of one of Smokey’s own hits with the Miracles. Not even Eddie Kendricks could match the purity of Smokey’s tenor, but he gets inside the song all the same and with the others answering in the background I’m sure no woman receiving the message was heard to complain.

“You’ll Lose a Precious Love”–Notable for David Ruffin using his tenor voice, bleeding into falsetto on the choruses. It was as beautiful as his rough baritone and hints at roads not taken. Tantalizing.

“It’s Growing”–Here, Ruffin, already firmly established, does something even Smokey couldn’t do, sliding from tenor to baritone to blue falsetto with miraculous ease, matching the movements to one of Robinson’s most trenchant lyrics. The group’s “Hey, hey, heys” would have stolen the moment from anyone else. Another hit.

“Who’s Lovin’ You”–Another remake of one of Smokey’s own hits. Here Ruffin, a Mississippi native who lived in the South until he was sixteen and whose family gospel group shared bills with the likes of Mahalia Jackson, shows why he could have cut it on the southern soul circuit. The others had all been born in the South, too, so they had no trouble keeping up. Gently, though. Gently. That’s the Smokey influence.

“What’s So Good About Goodbye”–Eddie takes on Smokey’s original again but this time the backing is stronger, more distinctive. If you can remove the memory of Robinson’s version (one of his most spectacular leads), this is beautiful on it’s own terms. The Tempts and their producer both knew how to play to their own strengths.

“You Beat Me to the Punch”–Paul Williams, the quiet man displaced by the spectacular Ruffin, accepts his assignment and gives it his special touch. The others were capable of reaching melancholy as required. Williams lived there, even on upbeat material like this, a hit for Mary Wells, who Smokey had already gotten a bunch of hits on.

“Way Over There”–Here Kendricks uses the rougher part of his voice to fine effect. The Tempts push hard, like a gospel group aiming for the charts. Good thing, because it took a might effort to get within ver-r-r-r-y close calling distance of Smokey’s original.

“You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me”–Poor Eddie. This was Smokey’s signature tune at the time, and the Beatles had done a superb cover. Everybody decided to take it easy, not to compete with the intensity the song had brought out of the lead singers in its two already famous versions. In context, though, it works, a setup for the close.

“(You Can) Depend On Me”–A coda, which nonetheless delivers. One of Smokey’s earliest efforts (so early Berry Gordy helped out with a co-write–a reminder that the Boss was no small genius as a music man), it floats where his original soared, but it’s a beautiful closer. Makes you want to start over…..Hey Marvin, what’s that guitar line again?

 

Note: The Temptations Sing Smokey, barely noticed by White America in 1965, spent 18 weeks at #1 on the newly instituted Billboard R&B album chart, a record that would not be surpassed until Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life spent 20 nonconsecutive weeks at #1 in 1976-77. Stevie’s record would stand (though tied by Rick James’ __ in 1981) until Michael Jackson’s Thriller arrived in 1983 and changed the game forever. Thriller struck deep, but new marketing techniques would soon allow LPs to spend a year or more at the top of the Pop or R&B album charts without leaving a mark on the culture crumbling around them. I don’t consider the inability/unwillingness to grant the final degree of creative license even to Smokey Robinson and the Temptations in their moment and the ensuing collapse the least bit coincidental. And throwing awards at those who survived to old age doesn’t make up for any of it.

Another of rock and soul’s many lessons for those who come after.

THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Fall 2019, Countdown–All Vinyl Edition)

10) Elvis Presley The Sun Sessions (1976)

Still the best way to hear the revolution happening in real time. What’s remarkable at this distance is how quiet the music is at its core, something one would never say about E’s R&B predecessors though it might apply to some of his pop and bluegrass influences. The leap from “Blue Moon of Kentucky”–incendiary in context–to “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (which wastes fine versions by Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris–along with all of human history to that moment, including “That’s Alright Mama”) is still shocking. A miracle in other words and as inexplicable as ever.

9) The Firesign Theatre Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers (1970)

I had to pull this to be sure it was the source of The Department of Redundancy Department so of course I listened to the whole thing. I always found them hit and miss (I sort of thought that was the point–that nobody would get all of it, especially the people who swore they did.)

I laughed. Nervously. Like always. Still not sure if they were geniuses or complete frauds.

Which might also be the point.

8) The Beatles Second Album (1964)

If you accept the Beatles as a garage band before they were anything else, this is the greatest garage band album ever. It was, of course, put out by their American record company, Capitol, with any eye to maximum commercial exploitation of their magic, maximally commercial, moment.

But that doesn’t keep it from being their strongest LP, start to finish. “Roll Over Beethoven” (with George delivering a rabid lead vocal) and “Money” are the strongest of their many strong covers and you can smell their naked ambition in every groove. Capitalism 101 all the way around. If you substitute greed for ambition, you can understand why John Lennon spent the rest of his life trying to make it up to everyone…including the tragic pretense he could walk around the streets of the meanest city in the world like any other citizen without paying a price.

7) Nancy Sinatra Nancy (1969)

The greatest torch album recorded by any member of the Sinatra family and that’s no shame on the rest because, at least thematically, it might be the greatest torch album by any member of anybody’s family.

I scored it for three bucks at a record show in the early nineties and, after my first listen, immediately set out on a quest to track down the rest of her LPs, which were not easy to find in the Florida Panhandle in those days. (Later, I bought them all on CD, only to see them go in the Great CD Selloff of 2002. This is the only one I’ve replaced. Hey, I still got the vinyl versions of the rest.) It turned out this was her magnum opus, the album she had in her all along. Absent Lee Hazlewood, she eschewed any pretense of being hip or groovy and slowed everything to a crawl. “Light My Fire,” “Son of a Preacher Man” “For Once in My Life” even “Memories,” which was slow to begin with, are drawn into her space so thoroughly and intimately the question of whether her versions are “better” is left for fools. The killer was “Big Boss Man,” which she not only slowed down, but turned inside out. She got scant credit for any of this, of course. I wonder if it would have made a difference if they’d included “Home,” her tribute to the body bags coming home from Viet Nam (now available as a bonus track on the CD edition). Probably not. Returning soldiers weren’t very popular then. Dead or alive.

6) Charlie Rich The Fabulous Charlie Rich (1969)

One of the greatest vocal albums ever recorded, stellar even by the standards of ’69, which was the greatest vocal year in the history of American music.

Rich was one of the few singers who could immerse himself in Beautiful Loser mythos and get away with it, probably because he didn’t sound like he was imagining being beaten. He sounded like he was beaten. That he was barely hanging on.

This is the best place to hear the timless “Life Has It’s Little Ups and Downs,” but the whole thing shines and “July 12, 1939,” his prequel/sequel to “Ode to Billie Joe” hasn’t aged a day either.

5) Linda Ronstadt Mad Love (1980)

An exchange in Greil Marcus’s mailbag had me pulling this one off the shelf for the first time in forever. I confess I missed it. She went New Wave (fake punk in Marcus’s words) and nailed it solid….like she usually did, except this is more consistent than anything I can remember except Heart Like a Whell and Prisoner in Disguise, the one-two punch that made her a superstar who could take these kind of chances in the first place.

This is also the one where she responded to Elvis Costello’s attack on her version of “Alison” by recording three more of his songs and beating him two falls out of three. That was after she called him a brat. It took brass to do all that in the brief period where he was a genius, but the real highlights, the title tune and “How Do I Make You,” don’t owe EC a thing. This one may go into heavy rotation.

4) James Brown Can Your Heart Stand It!! (1981)

This was actually my proper introduction to JB. What with all the box sets and CD reissues and what not, I’d forgotten how perfect it was

It only took one listen to remember. Understandably, people focus on the four-square funk bottom. But it was his singing that was the real miracle, the vocal equivalent of watching Elvis on television in the 50’s, or James himself on The T.A.M.I. Show.

You keep thinking, What will he do next?

Decades of listening don’t really yield any answers. The next move, whenever it comes, is still a surprise.

(And God bless the late, lamented Solid Smoke label, on which this and the next entry appeared.)

3) The Sheppards 18 Dusty Diamonds (1980)

This came out in the early 80’s, when record companies were just starting to pick up the pace when it came to discovering, or rediscovering, rock and roll’s bottomless nature.

The Sheppards were some kind of cross between doo wop and soul, a bit like The Jive Five. But, where the Five were always defined by Eugene Pitt’s dark, moody leads, the Sheppards were more flexible. That could lead them to the occasional silly novelty, but when they locked in, which was often, they were as great as anybody.

2) Ivory Joe Hunter The Man and His Music: Classics I & II (1983)

Well, as you can see this one is pretty obscure. I couldn’t find an image online for this particular collection, proving you still can’t find everything on the internet! (Well, proving I can’t anyway).

It’s a double-LP collection of Ivory Joe’s music from his late 40’s R&B heyday to his late 60’s forays into country. He was such a master of nuance that you could switch the production styles from one era to another and nobody would be the wiser. Intriguing discovery (and one more reason you should pay attention to your record collection) is a 1961 side “May the Best Man Win,” where he sounds so much like Charlie Rich you can’t help wondering who influenced who.

1) Dizzy Gillespie New Wave (1963)

My favorite bop album. One of these days I’m going to replace my scratchy vinyl with a clean-sounding CD. Since the vinyl came used (from my Dad’s flea market stash many moons ago), I’ve never heard it the way it’s supposed to be heard. I think the reason I haven’t upgraded is because I’m afraid it will lose something in the process.

Being the first form of American music made principally for dilettantes (or at least being principally exploited by them), bop’s not really my thing. It’s a pure mystery why I warmed to this one. But then, music is supposed to be a mystery isn’t it?

I hope they remember that in heaven.

….til next time.

SOUP TO NUTS TO NAZIS (Monthly Book Report: February 2019)

In January, as a New Year’s Resolution, I committed myself to read at least five books a month. In February, I decided to increase the goal to ten. Met it! Top of the world, Ma, and all that. With all the other irons I have in the fire, I doubt I can keep the pace, but, for now…

Barrack-Room Ballads (1892)
Rudyard Kipling

Kipling’s famous collection of poems dedicated to the British Tommy at their Empire’s high tide (you know, the one we’ve tried to slavishly imitate). He knew that Empire’s sun-never-sets-blood-never-dries underbelly first hand. He also knew what and who maintained it, and that hey did so shorn of any glory except what a simpatico spirit such as himself could shed on them.

And, oh, by the way, nearly every line still sings. He wasn’t just a great popular poet, but a distinctly musical one, at least the equal of Stephen Foster for rhythm, power, and ingenuity. I imagine he taught the Beatles a thing or two, if only subconsciously.

He was far more political of course than either Foster or John Lennon. He had seen what was under the underbelly as well and, cold-eyed as he often was about what was glimmering up top (where the merchant and officer classes rubbed shoulders with celebrity, royalty and each other–sound familiar?), was still more wary of collapse than of decadence. At least until the Great War came along, he was the poet laureate of the Devil he knew and this is where he found his purest form of expression. Recommended as an antidote to Gilbert and Sullivan, and vice versa.

The Story of Motown (1979)
Peter Benjaminson

A publishing industry quickie (they proliferated in the late seventies) that serves as a sketch biography of Berry Gordy, Jr., one of the most important men in the history of 20th century America.

It’s earned a reprint because it catches Motown at the moment of its imminent decline, which, not coincidentally, was closely related to Gordy’s increased detachment from his creation. That is was Gordy’s creation, and a near-perfect reflection of his titanic strengths and not inconsiderable weaknesses for as long as he remained at its core, Benjaminson leaves no doubt. There’s no way he can do full justice to either in the space allotted and nobody in a position to provide that space was looking for a door-stopper tome on Berry Gordy or Motown in 1979. You have to put up with the usual narrative shortcuts (many of which I spend my blog-life refuting), but this is a good, swift introduction to a subject which, like the American Revolution, we can never know enough about.

Camino Island (2017)
John Grisham

Though I’ve seen several of the movies based on his work, and they’ve all been pretty good, this is the first Grisham novel I’ve read. I’m assured by those in the know that it’s atypical and would have guessed as much without those assurances. Even here, I can attest he’s the good popular novelist I always heard he was. It’s an easy read. The only thing missing is the necessary ingredient in any pulp that seeks to provide something more than a temporary diversion: a sense of danger.

It’s not that I didn’t want anybody to die. I didn’t. Or that I wouldn’t have felt sad if they did. I would have.

It’s that I never thought they would. I’ll read more in the future for sure, but I might choose more carefully.

The Dud Avocado  (1958)
Elaine Dundy

Dundy is known to Elvis fans for writing Elvis and Gladys, the best book about E’s relationship with his mother, and one of the best books about him from any angle.

This is her only famous novel and it has devoted fans across the board.

Now that I’ve finally read it, I’ll call myself a semi-devoted fan. It’s an American-in-Paris tale with a twist, the twist being not so much that Dundy’s protagonist is a woman, but that she’s a generation late (check the publication date) and knows it without quite being willing to admit it, even to herself. The comedy, quite sharp and satisfying, comes from the narrator’s understanding of how self-conscious and temporary it all is, not just for her, but for everyone. Add that to a sharp, satirical eye for physical and psychological detail and the act of reading it can be judged very much like seeing Paris once upon a time. It’s something everyone should do at least once.

Whether the necessity of reading The Dud Avocado in order to feel you’ve experienced one of life’s great pleasures will fade along with the idea of Paris itself is something we will discover when that idea is gone. For now, if you can’t quite feel the vitality of the idea itself, you can at least feel the echo as you read along, chuckling where you once might have laughed out loud.

The Heat of the Day (1948)
Elizabeth Bowen

I spend a lot of reading time in the company of good writers–the older I get the less patience I have for anyone who is less than good.

But it’s always a little shocking to find myself back in the company of a great one. The only previous novel of Bowen’s I’d read was Eva Trout. That was a long time ago and made enough of an impression that I knew I could never renew the acquaintance casually.

This one involves a strange menage-a-trois, the more interesting half of which is never consummated either physically or emotionally (hand a merely good writer that scenario and see if they can pull it off). It takes place in war-time Britain and portrays in luminous, hard-hearted detail a handsome widow’s relationship with the two men who seek the replace her husband, one a suspected spy, the other the government agent pursuing him. The plot is the plot, and a good one, but there are only three or four ways it can go, and it goes one of them. Any special notice the novel receives or deserves (and it has received and deserved quite a bit), is due to Bowen’s exquisite command of language, which is on a level with Mrs. Wharton and Henry James. If that’s your sort of thing, this is for you. If it’s not, you’ll have to be satisfied with never knowing what you’re missing.

Don’t be surprised if that includes Elizabeth Bowen having your number.

Don’t worry, though. You are hardly alone.

The One From the Other (2006)
Philip Kerr

Fifteen years after his Berlin Noir trilogy was a bit of a sensation in the world of hard-boiled crime fiction, Philip Kerr resurrected his Berlin-born detective, Bernie Gunther, in a post-war setting.

As often happens with successful pulp novelists, Kerr’s books got longer over time as his ambition grew.

As does not often happen, this one pays off. The length entails growth for a change. His post-Chandlerisms still don’t work. (Have they ever worked for anyone but Chandler?) But this one has an emotional resonance that goes beyond the milieu and the plot and touches the detective himself.

Post-War Germany as depicted here is a place where there is literally no safe harbor and Bernie Gunther’s attempt to find one ends in real tragedy. I look forward to finding out if Kerr resolved the danger Ross Macdonald–one of the few pulp writers who managed to go this far and further–identified as using up your character. MacDonald’s solution was to give his detective no dimension at all, to have him operate as a ghost in the machinery of his surroundings. Kerr has cut himself off from that possibility. Bernie Gunther now has dimension.

It will be fun finding out where Kerr took it from here.

The Unmaking of Adolf Hitler (1996)
Eugene Davidson

This is the second part of Davidson’s magisterial study in political character. The title is odd on the surface since the vast bulk of this lengthy book details (some might say ad nauseam) deals with what most would consider Hitler at high tide as, step-by-step he conquered or cowed all of continental Europe from the Enligsh Channel to the suburbs of Moscow.

But Davidson’s point–which he’s not alone in making, though few have gone to such lengths or addressed the issue with this much scholarship and erudition–is that Hitler’s weakness came from the same source as his strength. That the megalomaniac is always bound to overreach because every success can only tempt him to go further.

That’s a comforting thought I suppose for those who survived him. But, of course, tyrants just as evil, rapacious and ambitious (Hitler and Mao come to mind) have died in bed with all their dreams intact (as Mao’s still is).  By focusing only on Hitler’s words and deeds as they related to his accrual of first political, then military, then imperial, power, and avoiding speculation about the inner man, Davidson has certainly rendered an important service. It should make anyone who has the stomach for it want to look deeper…

Large tomes on Hitler, Stalin and Mao that promise to do just that have rested on my shelves for years.

I feel them beckoning.

The Plot Against America (2004)
Philip Roth

Philip Roth. Hmmmm…

Good writer. I might have guessed that from the only book of his I’ve read previously which was the slight-if-engagiing Goodbye Columbus.

Then again, my attempts to read a few others of his, plus my encounters with his generation’s other ponderous heavyweights (Mailer, Updike, Bellow), had put me off this for years, so any surprises I discovered regarding this late-period novel’s crisp delivery were pleasant ones.

The main problem is that he has set the novel in an alternate universe and he’s not the man for the job, even if he assigned it to a prepubescent version of himself (named Philip Roth no less). Philip K. Dick would have known that the story here was inside Charles A. Lindbergh, the man Roth has winning the presidency in 1940 and leading America down the path of isolationism, effectively siding with Hitler in his fight against the Brits and Soviets.

It’s not one of history’s more likely what-ifs. Despite being a leading spokesman for the original America First movement, and a well-known laissez-faire attitude about the Nazis when he wasn’t praising them, Lindbergh never expressed the least interest in running for office. There were many he could have had for the asking, though the presidency wasn’t one of them. He’d have had to fight for that, so to make his parallel universe persona credible we would need to be inside him.

Without that perspective, which Dick would have known was essential and Roth doesn’t even attempt, this impeccably-written novel would go nowhere even if the author had the stomach to bring his tragedies front and center instead of assigning them to the margins. They’re still felt, but more as an exercise in mental gymnastics than a gut-punch.

Not just what if, then, but merely what if.

Wasted opportunity then. All that good writing, too. Shame that.

Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over  World War II, 1939-1941(2013)
Lynne Olson

All of which is why I’m glad I read The Plot Against America in tandem with this history of the wrangling between the interventionists and the isolationists in the years leading up to America’s entry into WWII.

Without resorting to the usual minutiae, Olson is able to get at the essential characters of the story’s two protagonists in a way that gives them just enough dimension to see them in the human terms such history usually deny such outsized characters. Somewhat alike in their icy aloofness and relative indifference to any damage they might be doing to the people closest to them, they differed in one key aspect: Roosevelt was a thoroughly political man who accepted socialization as part of the process while Lindbergh was a thoroughly apolitical man who found himself dragged into political situations because of his enormous fame and the area of his expertise (flying) which happened to coincide with military interests that couldn’t exactly be ignored with the world on fire and America bound to play some role.

What that role would be was a question that consumed both men. Lindbergh ended up having his personal and historical reputation shattered by his belief (shared by tens of millions of Americans even after the fall of France and right up to Dec. 7, 1941) that no European war was worth what an American intervention would cost. Once the evils of National Socialism were fully exposed by its defeat, no one who had been blind to the known depredations of the thirties could expect to fully recover.

Roosevelt, on the other hand, by far the more devious of the two on matters of principle, was vaulted to near-sainthood by having his half-hearted commitment tuned into full-bore interventionism by events. (Before Dec. 7 he was all for things like conscription and Lend-Lease, but little more committed to the idea of American boys sacrificing their lives for the good of humanity than the strict isolationists Lindbergh represented, and often accused of dragging his feet by those who are always ready to commit someone else’s life to their latest cause. In other words, the political man was a political realist and the foot he kept in each camp might have ensured his reputation irrespective of Amerian’s involvement or noninvolvement, so long as neither prospect involved actually losing.)

Olson does a fine job of telling the basic story, and that job entails leaving a crucial aspect of Lindbergh’s character, his pursuit of a double-life, until the very end, where it damns him more thoroughly than even his most dubious public pronouncements (of which there was no shortage).

Whether Roosevelt himself is redeemed only by forces beyond his control or deserves full credit for such foresight as he possessed, given that it was just enough to preserve Western Civilization for a few decades past its sell-by date, is left to the eye of the beholder.

The Last Battle (1966)
Cornelius Ryan

The last leg (though second published) of Ryan’s epic trilogy of the Allied invasion of Europe from Normandy onwards. As the title indicates, this one is dedicated to the fall of Berlin.

The books are all classics of  the New Journalism Ryan helped invent, of history and of popular literature. Though unlike the others (The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far) this one did not contribute a common phrase to the English language, it is just as thorough, just as fast-paced and just as vital. If anyone has bested his accounts of the events to which he chose to dedicate himself, I’m not aware of it and in any case, it’s unlikely any serious scholarship going forward can fail to take him into account. He might end up being the Edward Gibbon of the Reich’s defeat.

I waited far too long to read them all. Ryan’s are among the rare books I can finish at my age and feel like I’m finally a little bit closer to being educated.

…And now I must go start working on next month!

HARDER THAN IT LOOKED (Peter Tork, R.I.P.)

In the Broadway version of Jersey Boys, the Four Seasons’ most anonymous member, Nick Massi, described himself as “the Ringo of the group.” It got a big laugh in the theater, but, of course, Nick Massi was selling himself short. (Frankie Valli has said that Massi’s arranging skills were on a par with Don Costa or Burt Bacharach.** He would know.)

If there had been a Broadway show about the Monkees (and why hasn’t there been?) the line could have been handed to Peter Tork and gotten just as big a laugh….and been just as not-quite-true.

Tork answered the audition for a new TV show in 1965 at the urging of his friend, Stephen Stills, who had just flunked an audition himself. When Tork got the part–playing a guy in a fictional rock and roll band–he was surprised (well, shocked actually) to learn his considerable musical skills would not be required. In the end, he and the other Monkees did play their own instruments, with Tork the one who played the most–and the most variety (half a dozen instruments by the time they made Headquarters).

He nonetheless remained the quiet man of the group. It’s easy to think they could have got along without him, just as it has been easy for some to think the Four Seasons could have got along without Nick Massi or the Beatles could have got along without Ringo.

Maybe.

But chemistry is a tricky thing. Take even the most gifted performer out of the context where they rose to Rock and Roll fame and, almost always, something is missing. Take even the most “token” member from a great Rock and Roll group (and the Monkees were a fantastic Rock and Roll group even if many were and are too hidebound by their preconceived notions of what all that was supposed to be to admit it), and, again, something is invariably lost.

And no group, not even the Beatles, needed “all four” more than the Monkees.

Tork’s best musical moment came on Mann and Weil’s “Shades of Gray,” where he shared the lead vocal with Davy Jones.

Given where the world has gone in the years since, it is fitting, perhaps, that they should be the first to go…

**(For evidence, listen to the records the Seasons made between 1962 and September 1965, when Massi departed. Or just listen to the two-sided single “Rag Doll”.”Silence is Golden,” both of which are among the greatest arrangements of the rock & roll era–or, as I like to call it, The History of Arranging.)

THE SECOND MOST EXCITING THING THAT WILL HAPPEN ALL YEAR….

On March 26, 2019, the Criterion Collection is releasing I Wanna Hold Your Hand on DVD and Blu-Ray.

I don’t do advertising but if you want to know how I feel about the movie you can go here or here.

I find it double hilarious that this is the first film by Robert Zemeckis selected for Criterion’s prestige touch, given that his 2004 commentary (which will now be abetted by a bunch of new extras) made it clear he didn’t think much of what he had done, mostly because it didn’t make any money.

Criterion chose wisely. Zemeckis was later responsible for Back to the Future, Romancing the Stone, Forrest Gump, Castaway, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and many others that made a whole lot of money. This is still his best work.

..And the most exciting thing that will happen this year?

Stay tuned.

THE AMAZING WORLD OF JOE MEEK (Track-by-Track)

It’s Hard to Believe It: The Amazing World of Joe Meek (1995)
Various Artists

[NOTE: I don’t know if this is the best introduction to Joe Meek’s music,  just that it was mine. It got away in the Great CD Selloff of 2002 and I eventually replaced it with a 56-track, 2-disc set, which I don’t hear adding anything new or vital to his vision.]

It pays to take care when tip-toeing around cults. I trust them a little more when the object of shared affection has achieved some legitimate Pop success. I trust them a little less when said object is a murderer.

One whiff of Death Chic and my horse manure detector goes straight to eleven.

The day Phil Spector was arrested for murdering Lana Clark (a murder which fulfilled a spiritual contract he had been threatening to carry out on anyone but himself for decades and for which he was ultimately convicted), I got in my car, put my cassette copy of this in the tape deck and took the long way to town and back.

I got home just as “Black Pearl” was cutting to the fade. I sat in my driveway, sang along with Sonny Charles the way I always do, then closed my eyes and listened to Bobby Hatfield close it out with “Ebb Tide.”

Then, eyes still closed, I shook my head and said out loud:

“Well, he wasn’t a murderer then.”

He also wasn’t someone who really needed Death Chic, or even the common air of carefully cultivated eccentricity with which he was already associated, to ratify the genius part of his Genius.

All you had to do was listen to the records.

With Britain’s Joe Meek the equation, musical or human, isn’t so easy.

He, too, was a murderer.

He, too, was some sort of genius. Perhaps just not a musical one.

I hear three great records below and they are very great indeed. I also hear a lot of interesting technology, near misses and talent seeking an identity.

The Death Chic odor that surrounds Meek, then, is an especially strong one. Unlike Spector’s, his murder occurred while he was still young and active. It’s not so easy to disassociate the evil act with which he finally defined himself from the music he made or the public’s affection for it.

He was definitely no talent scout. Having, at some point, turned down the Beatles, Rod Stewart and a young David Bowie (and for no other reason than they stank), he did discover one of England’s finest female vocalists, Glenda Collins, and a good rockin’ band with a hard-driving female drummer (Honey Lantree of the Honeycombs), with whom he even had some commercial success. But his preference, always, was for weird, quasi-musical sound effects and studly young males who couldn’t sing. It may have been that talent put him off somehow.

Anyway, back and forth I go…

Does a minor genius–one tormented by being a closeted gay in an England where homosexuality was still outlawed–deserve the same respect for his work as a major one?

Especially if, unlike Phil Spector, he at least had the decency to off himself?

And if, unlike Spector, he committed his evil deed without first spending decades convincing himself he wasn’t satisfied with making all those great records, that he wouldn’t really amount to anything until he had blood on his hands?

It’s a close call, with no easy answers.

I guess the best thing to do is promise to listen close before we decide…

“Telstar”The Tornados: #1 on both sides of the Atlantic in December, 1962. The first British rock and roll record to hit #1 in America, more than a year before the Beatles hit The Ed Sullivan Show. It deserved its place in history. It’s a furious, mad record, as exciting and unrepeatable as “Rumble” or “Eve of Destruction.”

“Johnny Remember Me”John Leyton: Meek’s first UK #1, from 1961. The production is already forward looking, especially given Meek’s preference for recording in his flat. It wouldn’t be the last time he got a unique sound out of his need to keep everything close and completely under his control. Nor would it be the last time he failed to find a singer who could live up to that sound.

“Tribute To Buddy Holly”Mike Berry & The Outlaws: From 1961. What this has going for it is sincerity. The singer has the voice to put that sincerity across, but doesn’t seem to quite know what to do with it. The producer seems more interested in cramming in as many sounds as he can than with producing an effective record. It did hit the top 40 in the UK.

“Chick A ‘Roo”Ricky Wayne & The Flee-Rakkers: This is a near miss. Somebody knew their Buddy Holly front to back. The only thing they forgot was  to come up with one of those great songs Buddy wrote like it was as easy as breathing.

“Night Of The Vampire”The Moontrekkers: All atmosphere. In keeping with the vibe that was coming from comic books and the cheapest horror flicks. It’s probably effective background music for something….I’m just not sure what.

“Paradise Garden” Peter Jay: Another great production in every respect except the vocal. If this was what Joe really preferred, one can hear how he missed on the Beatles. Paul McCartney would have killed this, if he could have been induced to sing it instead of one of his own little compositions.

“My Friend Bobby” Pamela Blue: A pleasant girl group entry from 1963. The singer does not live up to her name.

 “Swingin’ Low”The Outlaws: The Outlaws were sort of Meek’s house band. This is a nice little number, a little Duane Eddy twang, a little rockabilly flavor in the drums, some weird echo. The Wrecking Crew, they were not. This is one of many records where it’s fair to ask whether Meek lacked access to top session men or they simply didn’t yet exist in Great Britain….or whether he preferred it this way. The Outlaws (who later on featured Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple fame), did make a record called “Crazy Drums” which lives up to Meek’s reputation. It, uh, did not make the charts.

“Valley Of The Saroos”The Blue Men: In his liner notes for the EP on which this first appeared in 1960, Meek billed the music within as suitable for space travel. It was/is unclear whether the astronauts having it piped in their ear were supposed to be asleep, moon-walking or making out. Fun to speculate.

“The Bublight” The Blue Men: From the same I Hear a New World project. I don’t think anyone was supposed to make out to this one. It may have been for going a step beyond…with space aliens.

“Til The Following Night” Screaming Lord Sutch & The Savages: Still in 1961. Look the man was dedicated to his vision. Jungle music on the moon. Good story line, though, something about a fellow who goes about doing terrible things in the night but has to crawl back in his coffin during the day. One of Meek’s true fellow visionaries, David Sutch eventually founded the Official Monster Raving Loony Party in Great Britain and lost a record-breaking forty elections. I have no idea of his platform, but it’s hard to imagine the Brits being any worse off for him winning a couple.

“Just Like Eddie”Heinz: Heinz was the bass player for the Tornados. This was his big shot at solo stardom and did chart in the UK. He had a white-haired version of Pink’s cropped-head look down forty years early. Alas, he did not have Pink’s vocal chops. But there’s a moment at the very end where he reaches for Eddie Cochran’s spirit and style and, for about five seconds, grabs it. That and some nice early session guitar from the aforementioned Ritchie Blackmore keep things interesting.

“North Wind”Houston Wells & The Marksmen: This one is almost all the way there. The production and guitar work are arresting, the vocal is good. Its buried too deep in the mix for maximum effect, leading me to wonder if Meek was simply scared of good singers? He rarely signed them and, when he did, he failed to show them off. Was he afraid they would get the credit? Give Phil Spector credit for this much: Even Ronnie Spector (who received credible death threats from her former husband decades before Lana Clark met her fate) said the one person who had complete autonomy on a Phil Spector record was the lead singer. He hired great voices and showcased them. To this point, no one would accuse Joe Meek of that.

“Huskie Team”The Saints: British surf music. Very fine. It would have fit right in on a collection of obscure South Bay bands from the Dick Dale era, though it wouldn’t have stood out.

“Have I The Right”The Honeycombs: 1964 and at last it all comes together. Meek signs a good band with a distinctive singer (Denis D’Ell) and straight off comes up with a stomping masterpiece that goes #1 UK and Top 5 US. Despite a string of fine singles (a few of which scraped the charts on either side of the pond), they never came close to this level of commercial success again. Evidently, some ensuing copyright issues going all the way back to “Telstar” were a major factor in destroying Meek’s finances and helped put him in a murder/suicide state of mind. The court issue was decided a year after he killed his landlady, then himself, in 1967. Apparently, British courts run along the same lines as American ones: The process is the punishment. The Honeycombs’ sides, along with “Telstar” and the best work of Glenda Collins, certainly make him the greatest British producer who never worked with a major band.

“My Baby Doll”Mike Berry & The Outlaws: A straight-up rockabilly tribute–with what sounds like zippy strings. Another near miss that goes by swiftly and painlessly.

“Something I’ve Got To Tell You”Glenda Collins: I said what I have to say about Collins’ vocal here. It was the finest she delivered on a series of strong singles for Meek and the one moment when she was the equal of Brenda Lee or Dusty Springfield. I’ll just add that Meek’s beautiful production–recorded in his flat, like everything else–is just as great, the one moment he really could have been Phil Spector.

“I Take It That We’re Through”The Riot Squad: 1966 and Meek is back to his old tricks, but he’s certainly learned a thing or two. This is a good record and has some great elements, including a wild instrumental break played on God knows what. If there’s a tragedy for the rest of us in Joe Meek’s story, it’s that he was clearly getting better as the decade went on.

“Lost Planet”The Thunderbolts: I couldn’t find out anything about the Thunderbolts, or when this was recorded, but it sounds like it would have fit on a Tornados album from 1962. There are people who can’t get enough of this stuff. I’m not one of them, but a touch of it here and there is good for the soul.

“It’s Hard To Believe It”Glenda Collins: A British “Eve of Destruction,” which means it lacks a certain air of the Apocalypse, lyrically and vocally. Still a fine record and a great closer, bringing Meek’s sonic, emotional and political concerns together in memorable fashion…and when he goes full sonic at the end–dispenses with everything except his own mad take on the world–the Apocalypse arrives anyway.

For those who want to seek out more information on Joe Meek’s life and career, there are a number of interviews and footage from documentaries on YouTube (just search “Joe Meek interview” or “Joe Meek documentary”).  There’s also a fictionalized biopic based on his life (Telstar: The Joe Meek Story). Might make a good Rock and Roll Screening some day.