I spent Thanksgiving and Black Friday reading and listening to a cache of vinyl (heavy on Chet Atkins) which was given to me a couple of years ago and I hadn’t had time to absorb.
My reading yielded this:
“When corruption reaches the highest precincts of government, the protection mechanisms for the people who inhabit those precincts are so powerful that they are almost impenetrable…What we saw in Watergate and what we saw in Iran-contra and what we saw in October Surprise–we saw those defense mechanisms used to discredit honest politicians and honest journalists.”
(Former House of Representatives investigative attorney Spencer Oliver, whose phone was the one the Watergate spies were trying to tap when hey were caught, quoted in Trick or Treason: The 1980 October Surprise Mystery, Robert Parry, 1993)
Then, for a break, I caught up with my on-line dailies and found this, which is a fifty-minute primer in how it works currently:
This makes me wish I had gone ahead and posted my take on the resignation of Broward County Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes last week. If I had, I could have touted my own insights and prescience. Anyway, this is what happened.
Republicans: If she resigns now, we won’t look into this too closely.
Democrats: She’s resigning.
To be honest, I previously capped corrupt votes (by Republican subtraction and Democrat addition) at around ten percent because, beyond that, you risk things getting out of hand.
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.
“We had so much fun in two years, there was no more fun to be had.”
John Phillips (from A Gathering of Flowers, intro to “California Dreamin'”)
The career of the Mamas & the Papas played out with a kind of classical purity. They embodied the dark and the light of “the Sixties” by living lives that were consummately hedonistic and making music that was almost completely self-referential.
“Don’t worry,” their best music said, and says, ” if you aren’t here yet, you will be.”
“It’s also entirely possible,” that same music said, and says, “that we’ll have moved on by then.”
To make it work, they needed to carry off a style of organic arrogance that made the Rolling Stones look like supplicants.
They made it work.
Naturally, being organic, it couldn’t last.
Funny thing, though.
I keep trying to get to the bottom of it.
And I can’t.
Oh sure, there were greater groups. Greater artists. And I have no idea how they seemed in their own time. I was in second grade.
I know how they seem now, from this time: Unfathomable.
And what better description of their time can you get?
Their backstory became famous. In “Creeque Alley” they even made it sound famously typical, which, except for selling millions of records, it maybe was.
But, when I say there were greater artists, I really only mean there were artists whose greatness the Great Narratives imposed by others accepted more readily.
Because whenever I want to cast myself back there–and boy do I–there’s nobody I listen to more, nobody more dangerous, more unsettling, more….thrilling. Their time was the time worth understanding, the time we never walked away from in either dream or (more’s the pity) reality.
And, in memory at least, they are the ones who held it in their hands, more one with that time than literally anyone, one of exactly two sixties’ acts–two any-era acts really–who might have had a deal with the Devil in place.
They were different than the Stones, though. Mick and Keith (well, mostly Mick) just went ahead and made a straight deal. Why not? What did it cost them?
Send Brian Jones to the funeral pyre he was already bound for and tweak John Lennon’s nose now and again and what riches might await!
Who wouldn’t take that deal?
Besides, they were Brits and there was never going to be any more England anyway. Big whoop.
But to have punched a hole in the American boat, to have had your wings melt so close to that sun, ah, now we’re talking subversion–and arrogance–of truly epic proportions.
Come hither, their deal said, and you’ll be the only act alive who can (as the liner notes for one of their many anthologies had it) bridge Rodgers & Hart and Monterey Pop.
Who wouldn’t take that deal?
Well, somebody like me maybe. But that’s different. I was in second grade.
When I was in fourth grade, a couple of years after the Mamas & the Papas broke up (their two years of so much fun there was no more to be had having run out), I took the other deal, the Christian believer deal. I took it, knowing even then, that the biggest part of the deal lay in knowing I’d never be safe from the Devil who makes the deals (he doesn’t bother with the nonbelievers once they make their deal, why would he?) and never have so much fun there’d be no more to be had.
That’s as much as I ever knew about the deal. What my background and choices did prepare me for was understanding singers and their power.
And, oh what singers they were, those four, when they were together in their time. Nobody like them. And it wasn’t like they didn’t know it. Their knowing it is evident in pretty much every photograph they ever sat for.
…and pretty much every line they ever sung.
How they got together was famous even in their own time. They didn’t have to wait for biographers, which was just as well, since there’s never been a good one.
Naomi Cohen reimagined herself as Cass Elliot, then Mama Cass. Then she hung around until the others took her in, or on, or…something.
John Phillips reimagined himself as the type of erstwhile folkie who could end up with Michelle Gilliam, who soon reimagined herself as Mrs. Phillips (“I liked folk music,” she said much, much later, “but what I really liked were folk musicians!”)
Denny Doherty, a touch uncomfortable imagining himself as settling for the title of Mister Cass Elliot, soon reimagined himself as somebody who could have an affair with Mrs. Phillips and was lucky–or was it unlucky?–enough to find her willing to share his illusion, be it ever so briefly.
That was just the personal stuff.
Out of that, the music.
John Phillips said, as often as anyone would listen, that he couldn’t write from anything but experience. So they had experiences. That whole thing about a lifetime’s worth in two years was just an excuse to make hits and money. No experiences, no hits. No hits, no money. The legend only came about because they were so good at living lives so many others wished they could live, and even better at singing about it. They reeled off a dozen radio classics in short order and four albums that stagger about a bit, but never quit yielding surprises when you stop and listen close enough. (A fifth, from a contractually obligated “reunion” gig a few years later, was desultory….there was no more fun to be had.)
Their own rise, their own Zeitgeist, their own fall, their own destruction: all right there in the music that came out of the experiences.
For about twenty-five or thirty perfect months (depending on who’s counting and who’s defining perfect), they lived more dreams than four mere lifetimes could hold.
But in order to get the loot, they had to let the world in on it, and from the release of “Go Where You Wanna Go” (instantly pulled in favor of the just-as-perfect “California Dreamin’,” which somebody had initially made the very weird mistake of imagining as a Barry McGuire record) to having the commercial failure of “Safe In My Garden” assured by their sudden absence from their own lives (no more touring, no more television appearances, no more pretending everything, or even anything, was all right) the world grabbed hold. You could say the world has never let go.
And the arc was perfect.
“Go Where You Wanna Go” can’t be plumbed. Don’t even try. Even if you make a definitive decision on You don’t understand, that a girl like me can/can’t have just one man–that is, whether you want to stick with the lyric sheet (the groupie/muse’s ultimate lament) or what the ear can’t help hearing (Women’s Lib on speed!) at least some of the time–it doesn’t really help, so there’s no need to get all balled up about it. I’ve gone there for you and my sincere advice is to go right on thinking it’s simple. It’s not. It’s not even complicated in any ordinary dictionary sense of the word. More like kaleidoscopic.There’s so much going on that if you stop believing it’s simple or go on pretending that it’s complicated but only in the usual ways, it will eat your mind out from the inside.
It will make it like the good part of the Sixties never even happened except in dreams.
You don’t want that!
Better to just go on a journey. “California Dreamin'” so to speak.
It’s a journey only they can take you on and the magic’s in the music for sure–the mostly sharp writing, the Wrecking Crew time and again measuring up to the instrumental challenge of matching and underpinning the vocals, the formal elements of the bottomless harmonies.
But mostly the magic’s in the elements there is no real vocabulary for, musical or otherwise.
It’s not in the come hither. It’s in the nah-na-na-na-nah.
..Which starts right there in “California Dreamin’.”
I mean, from this distance you can hear the fear in it–and you can hear it overridden, stomped on. Put out to pasture. it was the sound that mattered and it was the sound that did it.
We’re so close, the sound said, that the obvious–and fierce to the point of at least metaphorical bloodletting–competition going on, can be turned on its head. They were so determined to be as one that all the counterpointing in the harmonies, all the “yeah’s” that meant “no” and all the “no’s” that meant “yeah”–or “yeah?”–were as nothing. I mean, just listen to them! And, as Lou Adler would have it (naming their first album If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, easily the best-ever album title, after his first audio/visual impressions of the group) just look at them.
The imagery was perfect, almost as if it had been guided into existence by the unique, unsurpassable blend of their voices.
Or perhaps those voices demanded the acceptance of any old imagery they chose as the new definition of perfection.
The dream of the “Sixties” is, after all, right there.
Today will be what we want it to be.
You know, go where you wanna go.
Even the drugs will be cool. I mean….especially the drugs will be cool…
And, by extension, if today will be just what we want it to be, tomorrow will be even better!
In one fell swoop, the Folkies from Everywhere–Mexico, So-Cal, No-Cal, Nova Scotia, Alexandria (Virginia, but it might as well have been Egypt), the Hungry I and the Village and the Virgin Islands, fusing into one–had re-formatted the Protestant Reformation’s promise of a future Golden Age (itself the rejection of the age-old idea that the Golden Age lay in the past, a rejection that set Europe’s Ice People on a staggering five-hundred-year winning streak of which, as of 1966, “Go Where You Wanna Go” seemed like no more or less than the natural conclusion and justification–yes it meant, and means, that much–your refusal to believe in it doesn’t negate its refusal to acknowledge your silly refusals).
There was, of course, no direction to head from there except Utopia or the Long Fall.
We know–perhaps they even knew–where that fork in the road always leads.
You can have the greatest vocal group in history and just happen to include among your number one of the Rock Era’s two or three finest vocal arrangers who just happens to be an ace songwriter.
You can hook up with a great producer and have unlimited access to the best session players in the world–the only people, perhaps, who could ever hope to match your Utopian vocal and visual presence to sounds worthy of comparison (and, believe me, if you ever get around to listening to what’s going on behind the vocals, you’ll find the Wrecking Crew at the far edge of their own weighty experience–not even for Pet Sounds or Frank Sinatra did they reach further). You can be the only group of any era to have great male and female lead singers, breathtaking close and counterpoint harmonies, the ability to answer male and/or female calls with male and/or female responses, and to have the answers be vocal/lyrical affirmations and/or refusals.
You can hold all that in your hand while you take the coolest drugs, ride around in the fastest cars, sleep in the biggest, spookiest movie star mansions with the partners of your choice under the world’s most beautiful skies.
You can even promise to share it with your listening audience–to transport them into your world, three golden minutes at at time.
And you can deliver over and over again.
But that choice between the Garden you found and the Mean Old World you couldn’t quite leave behind will linger on.
For you and the world.
That deal you made with the Devil will still have a payoff–and a due date.
For you….and the world.
In their case the payoff was in a run of gold records. Hell, they even sold albums like hotcakes, in an age when not many did.
The due date was the same as America’s. And the world’s.
By the time it was done, they were done.
Then the Mean Old World moved on–or pretended to.
They gave up and disbanded, the first of the great Utopian Sixties’ groups to do so. (The Byrds never really disbanded–pieces just kept falling off until nothing was left but the name. A very different process, but those were the two paradigms. Break up…or linger on. When the Doors and the Beatles broke up, they were copping the Mamas & Papas’ style. When everybody else lingered on, the pieces just kept falling off and they ended up being worse than nothing.)
That left the question of who got it and who didn’t.
Time has given us the answers, even if nearly everyone is reluctant to admit it.
We need not speak of what Lyndon Johnson, lingering on in the White House, understood. But in the Pop World that existed in the summer of ’68, it turned out that only Elvis Presley, reporting to a series of TV sound stages and with God on his side, and the Mamas & the Papas, cooped up in John and Michelle’s mansion a few miles away, concluding their deal with the Master of this world, understood that we would never walk away from 1968.
From a Pop Political standpoint, the Beatles now sound like clever children, the Stones like mere cynics. Bob Dylan was already retreating into the rusticism his great mid-sixties albums had promised an escape from. The Byrds lay in pieces on the ground and Brian Wilson had already blown his mind.
And, as Pop Prophets went, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison were finally only self-destructive.
But at least they made great music.
Never mind the Thinkers. No need to pay even a modicum of attention to them.
Whoever you thought they were, time has already washed them away.
We’re left with who got it. Who looked around at the world of 1968 and said: We’ll never walk away from this.
Well, these people:
Naomi Cohen (32) died of heart failure in a London hotel in 1974.
John Phillips died in 2001 (65) never having emerged from the drug-induced haze produced by having so much fun in two years there was no more to be had.
Denny Doherty (66) died in Mssissauga, Ontario in 2007, worn down by years of alcoholism.
Michelle Philips will still show up to defend her group’s legacy. She probably hopes you won’t ask too many questions about the incest allegations John’s oldest daughter has made.
It all seems so very long ago.
And so very present.
Today, you might go on the internet and find an essay that describes “Safe In My Garden” as “happy” and “bucolic,” as though it represents an ode to a safe space replete with milk and cookies and teddy bears.
That represents real fear, I think. An understanding–an awareness of the terror abiding within the song’s formal beauty, right down to its meandering close-out, as though the group–and the world–have literally run out of places to wanna go and things to wanna do and whoevers to wanna do it with.
Else oblivion. An almost insanely pure ability to resist the obvious–the persistence in demanding that, contra Philip K. Dick, if you stop believing in reality, it will stop believing in you.
Reality still believes. The Mamas & the Papas are still the ones who recognized and sang about it, half-shouting, half-crooning, straight from the heart of the dying dream.
The world’s on fire, they sang.
We know, because we struck the match. they did not have to sing.
Leaving New York City through the Lincoln Tunnel, you drive through the neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen. On Tenth Avenue, the kids have for many years approached stopped cars at traffic lights and wiped their windows, hoping for quarters. One afternoon in 1964, the Four Seasons’ Bob Gaudio was leaving the city on his way home to New Jersey when he noticed that the kid smearing the glass was a girl.
“I saw her face–just the picture of her face and the clothes tattered…with holes in her stockings, and a little cap on her head,” Gaudio told Fred Bronson, author of The Billboard Book of Number One Hits. She finished the job and stood back as Gaudio searched his pockets for change. To his mortification, he had none. The smallest thing he had was a five.
“There was a split second where I said, ‘I can’t give her a five dollar bill.’ But I couldn’t give her nothing. So I gave her the five dollar bill. The look on her face when I was pulling away–she didn’t say ‘Thank you,’ she just stood there with the bill in her hand and I could see her in the rearview mirror, just standing in disbelief in the middle of the street with the five dollars. And that whole image stayed with me; a rag doll is what she looked like.”
(The Heart of Rock & Soul, Dave Marsh, 1989)
Jersey Boys, the musical based on the lives of the original Four Seasons, Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi, closed its decade-plus run on Broadway this past Sunday, after playing 4,642 shows.
The one I saw in December, 2005, was in the first hundred…and thereby hangs a tale I’ll never have a better reason to share:
Back around 1969, when the Merritt Square Mall in Merritt Island, Florida opened, they had a record store.
I never went near it.
Throughout the early seventies, whenever my ten, eleven, twelve-year-old self ran loose in the mall and I happened to be walking anywhere near the record store, I always made a point of crossing over to the other side. I wasn’t under any instructions or warnings. I just thought the place looked fishy. The people who always–and I mean always–hung around the entrance looked a little too much like the pictures you saw of the Manson Family.
Oh, sure, I knew they were probably harmless. We had hippies at church now and again.
But why take chances?
Bottom line is, I never saw the inside of a record store. Not until later.
Later, I saw the inside of many record stores, more than I can possibly remember. But in those days, I heard very little of what was on the radio anyway. Even if I had cared to brave the Mansonoids at the record shop, there was no need. Let them live in their world. Let me live in mine. If Jesus ever compelled me to witness to them, I would cross that bridge when I came to it.
Until then, I deemed it best to leave well enough alone.
That all changed after we moved to North Florida in 1974. Not right away. I listened to the radio a little more because my parents seemed to play music stations a little more. I have no idea why. Maybe there just weren’t any interesting talk and/or public radio stations where we lived now, just like there weren’t any hippies.
The real change came in the fall of 1975, when my Memphis nephew, who is five years older than me (19 to my 14 then), moved in with us.
My Memphis nephew didn’t go anywhere without the radio playing music. If we went somewhere in the car, he played the radio. If we went to work on one of my father’s paint contracting sites, he played the radio. If we were just sitting in my room, shooting the breeze, he played the radio.
It was kind of interesting, kind of fun, not much more. Then, come the last few weeks of 1975, the radio started playing this:
For the next few months, wherever I was, if my nephew wasn’t there to turn the radio on, I turned it on myself. And, for the next few months, I never had to wait more than half an hour to hear “December, 1963.”
Then, as such things happen–as I did not quite yet know such things happened, never having stopped to think about it–it no longer came on every half hour, or even every hour.
Not long after that, it didn’t come on every day.
And not too long after that, it didn’t come on at all.
I thought it might be okay, though, because, in the interval, I had made a discovery.
One day, while strolling through the local Sears store in Dothan, Alabama, I had happened across a bin full of 45’s.
I only knew what a 45 was because my sister left a few behind when she got married and moved out. By a few, I mean three: “Ode to Billie Joe,” “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” and a Little Richard record which was too beat up to play (and hence too beat up to hang on to, which is why the title has slipped my memory…”Tutti Frutti”? “Long Tall Sally”? “Rip It Up”?…the memory hazes…anyway, my sister had good taste).
Now, when I say I knew what a 45 was, I don’t mean I fully grasped the concept.
Oh, no, far from it.
For one thing, I thought they made 45’s to sell to people after a song was played on the radio enough to be considered a hit. That the 45 might be the actual method of distribution to the radio stations that played the music had never occurred to me.
So, in the spring of 1976, I was excited to discover that a 45 which contained “December, 1963,” by the Four Seasons, was actually laying in a record bin in a Sears store not twenty miles from my house, where I did at least have a record player.
I would have been a lot more excited if I had possessed the $1.19-plus-tax required to purchase the 45 or any means of acquiring that sort of cash in the foreseeable future.
Such was not the case.
The first impulse I ever had to buy a 45, then, was accompanied by the first of many similar experiences where the record I held in my hand was beyond the power of my eternally limited purse.
I mean, it wasn’t the sort of thing I had any chance of cajoling my father into buying for me.
And all the money I made working for him went to my college fund.
By “all the money” I mean every last red cent.
What to do?
Start working on the idea that maybe the world wouldn’t end if the college fund was spared a few bucks every now and then? Yeah, that sounded like a plan.
My dad was Scottish. He was also attending bible college full time and we were subsisting on the poverty wages raised by those weekend paint contracting jobs. Negotiations were bound to be difficult and ongoing.
It took me until the summer to wear him down.
We were back in Central Florida by then. Painting the Orlando-Seminole Jai Alai fronton every summer was the big yearly contract that made going to bible college in the fall and winter possible. If you think painting a jai alai fronton during the summer breaks from attending bible college was a contradiction you obviously didn’t know my dad.
And, if you don’t know what jai alai is, let’s just say it’s a sport closely connected to the term “parimutuel betting.”
Anyway, come summer of ’76, my dad and I were in Orlando, staying at the fronton during the week, commuting to my sister’s house in Titusville (that’s on the east coast of Florida and, yes, the same sister with the good, if limited, taste in 45’s).
Negotiations safely concluded, I one day found myself with five dollars of my own money in my pocket.
Nearby there was a mall. (Searstown? Miracle City? The memory hazes….)
Inside the mall, there was a chain record store. (Camelot? Record Bar? The memory….well, you know what memory does.)
Inside the record store, there was a big bin of 45’s that seemed to have every record in the world, or at least every record on the charts.
On a certain beautiful day in June of 1976–first time I had the chance–I begged a trip to the mall (I was still too young to drive) and found my way to the record bin in the record store.
I had one clear intention.
That was to buy “December, 1963.”
I had the $1.19-plus-tax. I had more than that, enough to buy at least three records that cost that much.
And by then, having cracked the code, there were actually quite a few records I knew I wanted to buy.
But I was determined to make “December, 1963” the first 45 I bought with my own money.
It didn’t happen.
It didn’t happen because there was a little card in the empty slot where “December, 1963” 45’s were being stored and the little card had the number 15 crossed out next to an order date two weeks before.
Seems they crossed out the number next to the order date when they sold out. There were a lot of dates on the card, with a lot of numbers crossed out going all the way back to December of the previous year. All the numbers were crossed out. They had been selling fifteen or more copies of “December, 1963” every couple of weeks for six months straight.
It was clearly going to be at least two more weeks before I got back to the record store and while I was pretty certain they would be reordering (fifteen copies? in two weeks? six months after the record came out?…yes, they would be reordering), I had no confidence they wouldn’t all be sold out again by the time I got back.
And while there were other record stores around, since I couldn’t drive myself, there was no telling when I would see the inside of one of those.
What to do?
Swallow my disappointment and look for other records. Obviously.
Which was how, a month or so before I found a copy of “December 1963” in a Woolworth’s (right next to the jai alai fronton as it happened), this became the first 45 I ever bought:
“Fallen Angel,” was not selling like hotcakes. It had scraped the Top 40 (another concept I was just beginning to grasp). Far from playing every half hour, I had only caught it a few times. I knew I liked it, and it turned out I liked it a lot. But that wasn’t the reason I picked it from the bunch–ahead of “Shannon,” by Henry Gross and “Let Your Love Flow” by the Bellamy Brothers–that particular day.
I picked it from the bunch–and first–because it was a Frankie Valli record and I knew he was the lead singer of the Four Seasons. I did not know, at that point, that “December, 1963” was the first of the Seasons’ many hits he had not sung lead on (he sang second lead, behind Gerry Polci).
Had I known, it probably would not have made any difference. The point for me was to honor the Four Seasons and still walk out of the record store with a record in my hand. The closest I could come, on that day, was “Fallen Angel.”
And, for the next thirty years, that was basically a footnote in my record collecting history: “Fallen Angel” was the first 45 I bought because Frankie Valli was the lead singer of the group whose record I really wanted to buy. And I really wanted to buy that other record in part because it had an impossibly cool vocal sung by someone other than Frankie Valli.
The memory of settling always did bring a smile…and a shake of the head.
This crazy world. What can a poor boy do?
You only get the buy your first record once. Then you gotta live with it. Who knew.
For thirty years, all that was just another stone laid in the pathway of life.
Then came 2005. Thirty years gone by.
In 2005–very late in 2005–I decided to give myself a vacation.
Through a weird series of events, I found myself with a windfall that meant I could go anywhere in the U.S. that a thousand bucks could take me. In my world that is a whole lotta money, but, wherever I was going, I wanted it to be worth it, because I also hadn’t had a real vacation in almost six years.
I was leaning toward Cleveland (hadn’t been to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since my last vacation) or San Francisco (hadn’t been there since 1991, when I didn’t get to stay long) or Chicago (1993 and ditto), when, by some freakish chain of coincidences, I was following an internet thread one night and it took me to a rave review of what appeared to be a new Broadway show based on….The Four Seasons?
It’s hard now–after a decade long run, a movie version, a new box set, a hatful of Tony awards and the like–to convey just how shocking this news was at the time.
The Four Seasons on Broadway?
Before that moment, New York wasn’t even on my radar. After that moment, the idea started lighting up my brain.
I hunted around and read more reviews. I investigated hotel and airfare prices. I did mental calculus and then actual addition and subtraction on a scratch pad.
I figured I could just barely manage it.
And I figured I had to, because, well you only live once…and it was the Four Seasons.
I had to come up with a few hundred bucks extra. I had to pre-plan way more of the trip than I had ever planned for any trip before (my understanding was that they didn’t let just anybody in to a hit Broadway show…and that booking a Manhattan hotel was not exactly like stopping off at the Best Western by the interstate). I had to fly in winter (one previous experience, not a good one as I have a habit of developing stopped heads in winter…a stopped head at 30,000 feet is not a pleasant experience…when I did this a third time, in December, 2015, I temporarily lost my hearing).
I began to have second thoughts.
I decided to do a little more research.
I mean, Four Seasons or no Four Seasons, I had never heard anything good about a so-called jukebox musical. How good could it really be?
Before I made this kind of commitment, even for the Four Seasons, I needed to look beyond the hype.
So I asked myself: “I wonder what songs are in this show?”
It seemed an important question because who were the Four Seasons if not their songs? I hadn’t exactly stopped at “December, 1963” after all. Within a year or two of buying my first 45, the Four Seasons had become one of my two or three favorite groups and they had remained that through thick and thin. I had grown used to defending them against all comers–and in those days, there were a lot of comers. To put it bluntly, the Seasons never had the cred that the Beatles or Stones or Beach Boys or Byrds (or any of a dozen other groups) had. For a lot of people (then more than now, though it’s still a problem), they were some kind of early version of Bon Jovi: Sold a lot of records, impressed a lot of girls (and God knows they never count), never got themselves much written about in the proper journals.
Jersey boys indeed.
I knew they deserved better–that they had gotten shafted a bit for lacking a sensitive Brian Wilson-type genius, when dozens of lesser bands had better crit-reps that existed on that and nothing more. And even those who did have something more, even a lot more (think Arthur Lee and Love, think Skip Spence and Moby Grape), still weren’t the Four Seasons.
I knew the Four Seasons and I knew they deserved a hit show on Broadway.
But that still didn’t mean it was a must see.
To make that judgment, I needed to know about the songs. Absent a sensitive genius, the songs would be what such a show rose or fell on.
So I made a point of looking for a song list and was pleasantly surprised to find one. A long one. From an official source (i.e., the show’s website).
Long and reliable then.
So long that it took me more than a glance or two to get to the bottom–by which time I had concluded that they certainly were being thorough. Except for “Silence is Golden”–admittedly a B-side–they had everything in there that I would have insisted on if they had asked me.
And I still wasn’t quite convinced.
Yes they were hitting all the high points. All the songs any Seasons’ lover would insist on. But what about filling in the cracks? In a catalog as deep as the Four Seasons’ shouldn’t there be at least one off-beat pick? One sign of eccentricity? “C’mon Marianne” was nice (speaking of sensitive genius bands, maybe the show would mention how the Doors lifted the intro for “Touch Me,”) but it was still a pretty big hit and available on every major Seasons’ comp I ever saw.
I kept looking for a sign….
And then, very near the end, two or three songs from the bottom of a list of dozens, I saw this:
That’s when I knew I was going to New York.
* * * *
So I went. Had a grand time. Got swept away by the museums and the shows (if I was going, I wasn’t putting all my eggs in one basket!) and the food and all the other stuff people get swept away by if they tourist in New York with at least a little money in hand.
I flew up on a Thursday. I went to a museum and an off-Broadway show on Friday. I went to another museum on Saturday morning and a Broadway show on Saturday afternoon. I saw St. Patrick’s Cathedral by moonlight. I ate fabulous meals in little hole-in-the-wall joints that my dad had trained me to spot back in the days when we traveled together.(“Watch where the Chinese people go,” he told me once when we were in San Francisco’s Chinatown. We did, and, if you ignored the cockroach that crawled out of the phone book on the chipped Formica counter and concentrated on the food, it was beyond belief.) I walked around for two days with a giddy smile on my face. Hell, I even figured out the subways. Not so hard, I found, when you were always going to and from Manhattan (i.e. Grand Central)–another trip, years later, when I made the mistake of chintzing and staying somewhere else, learned me that it ain’t hard to turn into an Out-of-Towner.)
And then, finally, it came Saturday night. The big event…
I wore a black denim shirt and white jeans. I didn’t care if it was after Labor Day. I was going to see Jersey Boys on a Saturday night on Broadway, a month after it opened a hop, skip and jump (or anyway a fast cab ride) from Newark (where at least one Broadway blue-nose had suggested it should have stayed). A month after it opened, Jersey Boys was being heavily attended by a mostly Jersey crowd–by the one group of people in the world who didn’t need to be told that the Four Seasons were every bit as good and important as the Beatles or the Beach Boys.
Give or take a vowel or two, I was, at last, among my people.
And still I wondered.
Would it really be worth all that?
Then the show started with a rap version of “December, 1963,” and I really started to have my doubts.
Then the guy playing Tommy DeVito (Christian Hoff–a few months later he would win a Tony) walked out on stage and announced that was the version that had just been a hit in France.
Thirty seconds later, I said to myself: “This is where I’m supposed to be.”
* * * *
Jersey Boys is a long show. Two-and-a-half hours with a fifteen minute intermission.
By the intermission, I was wandering around the lobby thinking of all the people I wished had been there with me. I was also wondering how it was possible for me to have had such high expectations and see them all surpassed within the first five minutes–and then surpassed again and again.
I wondered if they could possibly keep it up.
Five minutes into the second half I stopped wondering. I knew it wasn’t going to play me–or itself–false.
Then, near the very end, the stage went dark and a familiar chord rose from the orchestra pit…and, in the space of that single chord, I remembered what I had forgotten.
I had forgotten “Fallen Angel.”
Not only had I not thought about it since I arrived at the August Wilson Theater or in the city of New York, I hadn’ t thought about it since I saw it in the show’s song list on-line and knew instantly where I would be a week before Christmas in 2005.
It was the forgetting that made it memorable. If I had been thinking about it all along, or anywhere along, I would have known it was coming–would have been wondering how they were going to fit it in, when, unlike all those dozens of hits known to all, it could not really be part of the Four Seasons’ story.
Turned out it was the heart of the Four Seasons’ story. By the time I heard that first chord and it all came rushing back–1969, 1975, 1976, a month before–I knew a whole lot about the Four Seasons I hadn’t known before and I also knew that the young woman walking across the stage was representing the ghost of Frankie Valli’s daughter, whose death-by-overdose he blamed on an absent fatherhood created, in part, by the fame and fortune he had crawled across broken glass to reach, and in larger part by the three hundred nights a year he played for a decade and more to pay off Tommy DeVito’s seven-figure gambling debts because DeVito had gone to prison rather than snitch on him when they were teenagers back in the ‘hood.
That’s the best moment I’ll ever know in a theater, sitting with two thousand locals who worshiped the Seasons and realizing I was probably the only one who knew what was coming from the first chord–the one unrecognizable, eccentric, off-beat musical selection that was the show’s big payoff. All those dozens of hits, but only one of them was called “Fallen Angel,” so, to fit the harshest fact of Frankie Valli’s life–and Tommy DeVito’s–it had to be there, even if it never made the top thirty.
The show didn’t end there. It ended with the Seasons reunited, rising from the floor at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction (which also served as Valli and DeVito’s personal reunion after years of not speaking) to sing the greatest of the records that had made them the truest American working class heroes between the fall of the original fifties’ legends and the rise of Creedence Clearwater Revival*….
which made #1 in 1964, in the teeth of the British Invasion, as the A-side of my pick for the greatest-ever two-sided single, the B-side of which was…
…the only thing the show was missing.
But, by then, I had forgotten all about that, too. Even with an un-programmed encore of–you guessed it–“December, 1963,” giving me one last reminder that this had been where I was supposed to be, and a three-block hike to my hotel that amounted to levitating above the sidewalk, I knew which highlight I would always remember first.
My only regret is that–like buying that first 45–it could only happen once.
*The fantastic book for Jersey Boys was written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. During one of the early development meetings, Brickman mentioned to Gaudio that he had missed out on the Seasons in the sixties, in part because he had been so heavily engaged politically, especially in protesting the Viet Nam war. Gaudio’s reply was “Well, when you’re writing this show, just remember that my audience were the ones fighting it.” The beat goes on.
Before he decided to become a full-time minster in the summer of 1974, my father was a paint contractor. Around 1972, give or take a year, he was hired to paint the interior of one of the Florida Space Coast-area branch offices of a prominent bank that operated within a stone’s throw of the Kennedy Space Center. When it came time to paint the top floor, which was taken up by the bank president’s office, it was decided that the president’s daily business was too important to be interrupted so my dad would just have to paint around him as he worked.
I’m not sure how all the logistics were managed, but the upshot was that, for a week or so, in the early seventies, my dad found himself in daily conversation with a guy whose brother was a mucky-muck at the Atlanta branch of the Federal Reserve.
Dad had the gift of gab in excelsis and it pretty much always elicited one of two responses in strangers: Either they got out of earshot as quickly as possible or they opened up and told him all the secrets they’d been careful to keep from their own mothers.
Maybe because he didn’t really have a choice, once he decided to stay at his desk, the bank president turned out to be the latter.
By the time my dad finished painting the guy’s office they were on sufficiently intimate terms for the gentleman to offer some very timely, in-the-know advice.
First: Build a bomb shelter in the back yard.
Second: In addition to plenty of canned food and ammo, be sure to stock up on the following three items:
Cigarettes. Bonded whiskey. Gold bullion.
In the coming when-not-if age of Economic Chaos, which would surely be upon us before the decade was out, those would be the only three items that had any real value as barter.
Normally, I doubt even my dad, who wasn’t immune to apocalyptic thinking, would have given it much thought. But, before my mother sounded the final voice of reason, he ended up kicking it around for a week or two. At least the bomb-shelter part.
I’m not sure I could blame him.
It’s one thing to have the guy ranting about End Times on the street corner hand you a pamphlet written in invisible ink. It’s another thing altogether to get the inside dope from a guy who’s chewing the fat with his brother at the Fed every day while you’re dipping a roller in the Antique White.
I relate this little story because, unless you were there, the early seventies can seem very long ago and very far away. And, even if you were there, especially if you were as young as I was, they’re really not much closer
The air is like that. It changes. And once it does, you can recall concrete events, hazy conspiracy talk and the smell of paint thinner a lot more readily than the atmosphere in which such memories were formed.
About the only way a story like the one about my dad and the ban president seems anything other than quaint now, when the end (bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!) really is near, is to listen to bands like War and Steely Dan.
Once upon a time, in the age of the Rising, they had the air in common.
* * * *
They had a lot in common besides that.
They rose to prominence in the same place (Los Angeles) at roughly the same time (early to mid-seventies), practiced definitive variants of a rather fluid concept bandied about as “jazz rock” in those days, and, despite neither band being long on marketing, as opposed to musical, personality, each enjoyed remarkably high and similar levels of commercial success:
War: 8 gold or platinum LPs between 1970–79; 12 Top 40 singles, 6 Top 10 singles.
Steely Dan: 8 gold or platinum LPs between 1972–1980; 10 Top 40 singles, 3 Top 10 singles (with two more reaching #11)
That’s a lot of common ground. Especially considering they weren’t really soul mates.
I’ll lay into that in a bit.
But first, I’ll note one really big difference, which is how the usual suspects in the smart set generally felt about them:
Rolling Stone, listing the 500 greatest albums of all time, named three Steely Dan albums, at #145 (Aja), #240 (Can’t Buy a Thrill) and #336 (Pretzel Logic), to one War album, at #444 (The World is a Ghetto).
Robert Christgau gave four of Steely Dan’s studio albums contemporary grades of A- or better. He gave no grades of A- or better to any of War’s studio albums (he did give an A- to their 1976 best of).
Greil Marcus, in his invaluable “Treasure Island” list at the end of Stranded, included three Steely Dan albums. War was represented by one single (“Slippin’ Into Darkness”).
Dave Marsh, in The Rolling Stone Record Guide, was less enthusiastic about Steely Dan, giving three of their first six studio LPs a rating of 4 stars (on a 5 star system). But, though he called them “perhaps the most underrated black band of the Seventies,” he only gave two of War’s first seven studio LPs a grade of 4 stars (none higher), thus, oddly enough, helping insure that they would continue to be what he was purportedly lamenting.
Later, in The Heart of Rock ‘N’ Soul, a personal list of “the greatest 1,001 singles,” Marsh included three singles by each band. To be fair, War’s averaged out considerably higher in his rankings, but, basically, he called it a near-draw in an area where War was demonstrably stronger.
Once you get past these particular iconic writers/institutions, the crit-balance tips even more in Steely Dan’s favor, because few, if any, of the other white boys who have always dominated the basic narrative ever wrote about War at all, while many paid some kind of obeisance to Steely Dan (including their own chapter, by Ken Tucker, in Rolling Stone’s Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, a book in which War is mentioned exactly once–as Eric Burdon’s backup band on “Spill the Wine.”).
And, of course, circles of self-reinforcing logic being made to be unbroken, Steely Dan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, in their fourth year of eligibility. War, eligible since 1996 and nominated three times, has yet to be voted in.
So it goes.
None of this has much to do with how great (or not) either band was/is. I’m not really big on the whole This-Versus-That dynamic. Sure it’s fun to play (Stax or Motown? Beatles or Stones? Prince or Michael? Tweedle-Dee or Tweedle-Dum?) but, really, I never thought those kind of choices said much about anybody, though the desire to make such choices might, and the desire to impose those choices on others definitely does.
So this isn’t a “War or Steely Dan?” argument.
It’s more like a thought experiment on why the critical assessment between two such evenly matched bands has so consistently favored one over the other.
Well, here’s a thought for the experiment.
How about, one group is Black and the other one is White?
Obvious though it is, it could still have consequences. So let’s let it dangle for a bit.
* * * *
Despite their similarities, as the covers of their respective breakthrough albums rather eloquently suggest, these bands were on rather different journeys:
I mean, you wouldn’t need the names on those covers to guess who was street and who was collegiate.
Which doesn’t mean they didn’t like each other personally or, as folks used to say, “dig” each other musically.
I have no idea if the respective members even knew each other and, while I can guess that they heard each other’s records (pretty hard not to), I have only a vague notion of how much, if any, impression those records made one upon the other.
Were they pushing each other, back there in that shared time and space? Inspiring each other? Making sure they at least kept an ear out for what the other was up to?
All of the above?
None of the above?
Hard to tell, beyond hints and allegations (which I’ll also get to in a bit).
A certain part of the truth is accessible, though.
In spirit and fact, War’s music rose from the neighborhoods Steely Dan, in spirit if not fact, cruised after dark in search of whatever might lend an edge to a pretty jaded existence: cool drugs, hot hookers, Jazz Heroes….inspiration. Black America’s traditional relationship to White America in other words.
This might have been no big deal. We are what we are. Nobody can blame the Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen for going to college. But this distinction happened to represent one of the gulfs White America and Black America needed to bridge if we were going to have any sort of future as anything other than the cobbled together, quasi-functional, political-economy-with-borders which was already dancing in the dreams of our conspiracy-of-intent overlords. Something was going to come out of the rubble of the late sixties. Whether it would be a step up or a step back was being fought out on the airwaves as much as anywhere else.
The gap would be bridged or the bridge would be destroyed. Mountains were bound to fall.
Whether they would fall on us was still a question, though, and just because we now know the answer, and know the mountain was made out of manure, doesn’t mean the why of it isn’t still worth exploring.
Unless, of course, we just want to give up.
* * * *
And the first factor in “bridging the gap”–in not giving up–would be what?
Maybe recognition of something elemental?
Like maybe a black band from the actual ghetto could offer a vision as stimulating and challenging as a couple of white guys (Steely Dan was basically Fagen, whose idea of “street” was the classically bohemian one of detesting his parents for moving to the suburbs, Becker, and whoever they felt like hiring at a given moment) who went to college (and, some might argue) never really left, even if Becker did drop out and Fagen, protesting a bust, did refuse to attend graduation?
That’s actually been a hard line to cross with even the most enlightened of the crit-illuminati. I’m not down with Wynton Marsalis much, but he was right to bristle at white critics who called Louis Armstrong (that is, even Louis Armstrong) an “instinctive” genius.
What did that mean? Marsalis wondered. That he didn’t know what he was doing?
Well, yeah. That’s exactly what it meant.
Some of this attitude has hung over the discussion of nearly every black musical genius–or great band–from the dawn of the popular-music-criticism-verging-on-intellectualism that jazz itself finally forced into existence in the twenties and thirties, to the last time I looked at my watch.
Yes, an Armstrong or an Ellington or a Miles Davis eventually gets the last level of respect, even if it’s bound to retain a slightly patronizing air which is frequently reduced to over praising. And, yes, a James Brown or a Jimi Hendrix gets it, too, though it’s usually couched as some form of Resistance-to-the-Man, which, sotto voce, is accepted as being as compulsory (for black people) and as much a product of the subconscious, as, well, instinct.
That is, a band like War could only write/sing/play with such conviction about the world they knew–a world writerly sorts were free to ignore or acknowledge as they saw fit–because it was the world they knew. They were geniuses of observation.
Well, maybe not geniuses, but, you know, really funky and kinda smart about stuff.
The way black people just naturally are.
On the other hand, a band like Steely Dan–i.e., a couple of cool cats like Becker and Fagen who, admittedly could not have been cool in any context except that of the Rock and Roll America they were determined to mock–could imagine things.
They were thinkers by God!
And that narrative became all but officially signed, sealed and delivered, no matter how often Becker and Fagen’s lyrics were clearly rooted in personal experience…
Or how often War’s lyrics were clearly flights of imagination…
And that was before any discussion of the music behind the lyrics, which, in Steely Dan’s case, tended to make the critics who took them to heart from the moment they showed up in the early seventies wax lyrical and, in War’s case, tended to make them wax either not at all or along the lines of Christgau’s jeering “blackstrap-rock.”
Ha, ha, ha.
That’s one side.
And, on the other side, you get, for instance, Tucker in his History of Rock and Roll piece:
“Becker and Fagen had already evolved a procedure that guaranteed a certain amount of tension and surprise, and at its best generated a flow of little pop epiphanies: genre riffs are set off by contrapuntal rhythms…then these clever contrasts are polished and hammered down by rock-intense playing.”
Okay, maybe Lonnie Jordan and Bebe Dickerson and the rest of the men of War were lucky, being spared that sort of praise. But note the active verbs: evolved, generated, polished, hammered down.
So far as I’ve been able to tell, War has never been discussed in similar terms and, even if it happened, it’s unlikely they’d find themselves credited with a phrase like “evolved a procedure.”
That’s reserved for the college kids…by other college kids.
* * * *
Now, none of this would matter if Steely Dan had, at some point, really been a better band. We should all know the dangers of quota-based tokenism by now. But Steely Dan at high tide wasn’t greater than War at high tide.
Simple evidence there…They weren’t greater because nobody was.
Sure, some bands sustained greatness longer. But when War was locked in–roughly from 1971’s All Day Music through the 1976 single, “Summer,” which turned out to be their last big hit, they were a cosmic American band on a level with Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens or the original Byrds.
They just couldn’t get the white boy press to hear it that way.
Absent a “personality” White America’s newly self-appointed intelligentsia could latch onto–a Sly Stone or George Clinton who could serve as an identifiable “Wow man! He’s so-o-o-o great!!” cool kid, whether they liked it or not–they were simply never going to get the level of respect that a similarly anonymous (and, yes, similarly great) white band like Steely Dan could take as a matter of course.
It wasn’t the public, by the way, who failed to “get” it. Along with everything else, War easily crossed race and class barriers on the radio that Steely Dan never got within shouting distance of. (You can go here and scroll down to the War entry for a sense of just how far they reached.)
And they did not do so “instinctively.”
They did not do so by dint of failing to pass the great test of Art. They did not fail to imagine music that made the world larger instead of smaller.
Quite the opposite.
* * * *
Which brings us to the real divide. And the real cost.
Great bands. Same time and place. Some overlap to be sure.
Steely Dan’s famous first single, for instance, sure sounded like somebody in their camp was deeply into the mix of specifically L.A.-style garage funk which War, working their way up from the streets so many out-of-towners wanted to own, already embodied.
And, even if the white boy brigade had trouble hearing it, War’s occasionally mordant wit certainly wasn’t without a tinge of the irony Steely Dan specialized in.
So, in addition to all the stuff I mentioned at the top, they had enough else in common that it’s not too hard to imagine them covering each other’s songs.
Because, all their very real differences aside, sharing a time and space mattered, too, and more because of the time than the space.
In that time–and every space–the spirit of good old rock and roll, lingering in the aftermath of ’68, the year it probably wasn’t yet quite so evident we could never walk away from in the way we had managed to walk away from 1812, 1861, 1929, 1941 was still potent. Which meant that, for as long as Rock and Roll America lasted, Black America and White America were bound to keep invading each other’s space, looking for a way forward.
In that all-important respect, Steely Dan were no pikers.
But War went further.
Steely Dan was finally minimalist, introverted, elliptical. It was hard to imagine them ever being so corny as to name their albums after hit singles.
There’s a fine line, though, between cutting to the heart of the matter and cutting the heart out of the matter. On the first two cuts of their first album–“Do it Again,” and “Dirty Work”–this sounds very much like a line Steely Dan could have walked. Even the rest of the first album’s tendency towards obscurantism-for-its-own-sake didn’t entirely negate the possibility.
By the end of that first LP, though, they weren’t so much walking the wire as clinging to it from below, with one hand slipping.
They more or less held on for the next three albums, more than enough to make them justifiably rich, famous and celebrated. And holding on was an achievement, plenty enough to keep the music alive through the increasingly woozy lite-jazz descendency of their late period and, for the attentive, all the years since.
But one is justified in asking: Where’d the vision go?
Nowhere, really, because, after those first two luminous cuts, it never quite developed into a vision.
Visions, it turned out, were corny, too. Just like naming your albums after hit singles.
So, eventually, the cool kids who had spent their lives cutting themselves off from anything that could be misinterpreted as a little too heart-on-the-sleeve, ended up being the mushiest thing on the radio in a time (the late 70s) when the radio was turning to mush.
To be fair, War faded as well.
Embracing a vision costs, too. Just like avoiding one.
Instead of turning to mush, they simply lost their edge. The sharp blade became a dull blade. Better than late Steely Dan, but hardly what they had been…or what Steely Dan had been.
It’s certainly possible to argue that Steely Dan had it right. If the mountains were going to fall anyway, why not make sure the mountains fell on somebody else? Why not remain on the ridge, in safety? “If you live in this world you’re seeing the change of the guard” for sure. But this ain’t Fort Apache. It’s not as though honor were at stake. I mean, what’s cornier than that? Especially if, by remaining in safety, you might even get yourself proclaimed a visionary.
Plenty have weighed in on the value of Steely Dan’s vision. Ken Tucker’s take is standard, even exemplary, in that respect. And the “vision” is not illegitimate.
But War, greater or lesser by more objective standards, went further in this respect.
Their vision–long unacknowledged by critics who think what really matters is voting reliably Democratic and retweeting #BlackLivesMatter (or whatever hipster movement, prepared to make no difference either, takes its place next summer) to all their friends–was bracketed by their first and last important singles:
Pure L.A from beginning to end….and contextually shocking.
The surfers had sent out a vision of L.A. and it was shooting the curl at Malibu.
The folk rockers had sent out a vision from Laurel Canyon and it was peace, love and long hair, plus harmonies, guitars and groupies.
The Doors had sent out a vision from the Whisky and it was “Father I want to kill you, Mother I want to….a-a-a-a-a-a-g-g-g-g-g-h-h-h-h-h-h!”
War checked in a generation before the rappers and said, quietly and then not so quietly: Hey, it’s our town, too.
And what they really meant, a message that resonated from Compton to Cape Town, from Mexico City to Montgomery, was it’s our world, too...And if you want to do something about it you could start by giving us a little basic respect.
In that sense “down at the beach or a party in town, making love or just riding around,” the most intense action juxtaposed with the most laid back, an insistence that Los Angeles and the world belonged to black people from Compton as much as beach boys (or Beach Boys) from Hawthorne, was at least as revolutionary as “the world is a ghetto,” and also sent the message that revolutionary and “incendiary” were not the same thing.
They didn’t share Steely Dan’s underlying, deeply cynical assumption, one that moved much of SD’s audience even if they never quite bought it themselves: If the world can’t be saved, it’s really a bummer, but let’s all be thankful it can at least it can be endured, one joint at a time
* * * *
War had a white harmonica player but they otherwise consisted of American-born black men who recognized Rock and Roll America’s fundamental challenge: If we’re ever going to get anywhere, Black America and White America are going to have to challenge each other’s space and learn to get along.
Steely Dan, despite their jazz element, were white men committed to protecting the space off to the side which elite White America has always very carefully preserved for itself, a space that has always been most ably defended by folks who are the longest way possible from being “racist.”
The Dan weren’t for invading anybody’s space.
And one could say that their once false assumptions have become the norm. They’ve certainly become the collegiate norm, which is one reason the overlords are pushing “college” on everybody (bilking suckers being the other). Whether they’ve also become true is a question for the future, a future I suspect is looming nearer than we think as we become less and less capable of producing art that can either wound or heal, let alone do both at once.
Whatever future is coming, someone will be left to look back and judge us like all the other fallen empires who, funnily enough, we really had very little in common with.
It will be for them to study the moment when the balance was being tipped and decide who gave a nudge in the direction of the Void and who shouted a warning.
Chances are, if you took the easy way out, greatness won’t really absolve you then.
And if there is no judgment?
Well, there will sure be a lot of Steely Dan fans.
And War, still shouting in the wilderness, won’t make any sense at all.
Thought this was worthy of its own review ahead of the monthly book report (which is running a little late). Thanks to Neal Umphred for reminding me of its existence and encouraging me to finally track it down. You might also read it as my R.I.P. for Paul Williams and a mea culpa, since I missed the news of his passing a couple of years back and certainly would have noted it here had I known:
Outlaw Blues (Paul Williams, 1970)
If rock criticism had a “father” Paul Williams was it. There were a lot of young men (not, so far as I can tell, many young women or many of either gender who were other than young) trying to write about the effect rock and roll was having on them and the world in the mid-sixties. But Williams was the first to actually get a national magazine off the ground (Crawdaddy) while at the same time pioneering an open-hearted writing, editing and interviewing style that, just coincidentally, would end up, after the promise of the sixties had burned off, remaining forever at odds with the continuation of Standard American Business Practice as Usual.
Outlaw Blues is a collection of early Crawdaddy pieces and catches its moment–those ever-befuddling sixties–like very little else. If Williams didn’t turn out to be quite the businessman Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner was or quite the writer Lester Bangs was, he was nonetheless more visionary than either, and the person whose work effectively broke the ground those opposing spirits spent their lives tilling.
It’s worth remembering that Williams was aging from roughly 19 to 21 when these pieces were written. Naivete is a certain part of the book’s charm. An even greater part, pretty much inextricable from that naive quality, is the sense of being there, fully present at the dawn of our current confusion, at a moment when all things, good and bad, seemed possible, a moment Williams, to a degree few did then and nobody does now, invariably expressed in terms ranging from acute:
“Perhaps the favorite indoor sport in America today is discussing, worshiping, disparaging, and above all interpreting Bob Dylan.” (that from July, 1966)
“Rock gave Jim Morrison the freedom to slip ‘learn to forget’ into the middle of a seduction song.” (April, 1967)
“Perhaps I don’t make myself clear. I only want to point out that if we found out tomorrow that Bob Dylan was a 64-year-old woman who’d changed her sex, and a proven Communist agent, we might be surprised, but the words to ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ would not change in the slightest. It would still be the same song.
“I will say, to dispel any doubts, that Mr. Dylan is not a 64-year-old woman or an agent of anything. I met him in Philadelphia last winter; he is a friendly and straightforward young man, interested in what others are saying and doing, and quite willing to talk openly about himself. He is pleased with his success; he wanted it, he’s worked for it honestly, and he’s achieved it. We talked about the critics, and he says he resents people who don’t know what’s going on and pretend they do. He named some names; it is my fervid hope that when this article is finished, and read, my name will not be added to the list.” (July, 1966)
“You know what I mean, that special feeling after the last words of a book, that goes on and on extending that book and yourself across forever into now, the sudden unexpected sense of the real, the flash of power and together, in your mind.” (on the Who’s “I Can See for Miles”–February, 1968)
or even to ecstasy, a near-religious euphoria:
“At this stage in its history, rock is bursting forth from restrictions placed on it in childhood, and I suppose we can say it is having a brilliant, though difficult, adolescence. It is discovering, in new ways every day, just what is really going on out here; and every new discovery is heralded as the final, unassailable truth. And perhaps (I hear it in the most recent music of the Kinks, the Who, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, Dylan) rock is just now beginning to discover that there are no unassailable truths, there is only greater and greater awareness of the universe. And of oneself.” (February, 1968)
If Williams mostly saw the good in all that, he wasn’t exactly alone. And he had the excuse–sometimes the advantage–of his extreme youth. In that sense Outlaw Blues is both a gift to the future we now occupy, and (if you choose to read between the lines), a warning that we might not be able to do more than occupy it.
I mean, these days, if you want to write something like “there must be more going on than the obvious, stereotyped stuff, or why do I like it so much?” or even “The Beatles are unshakable, which certainly contributes no end to their position as culture heroes, though it may someday detract from their standing as artists.” you aren’t going to catch on at Rolling Stone and you aren’t even going to start a new version of Crawdaddy. These days, if you want to be that direct, wear that much of your heart on your sleeve, take that much risk of looking either prescient or foolish, about the best you can do is start a blog.
That’s in effect what Williams did in the mid to late sixties.
You might call that seeing around the corner.
In a sense, his specific concerns hardly matter. Besides the usual Dylan/Beatles/Stones trifecta, he was deep into the Jefferson Airplane and the Doors (who I like) and the Byrds and the Beach Boys (or Brian Wilson anyway) who I love. But after decades of living with them all, I found every interest (like/love/appreciation) rekindled as I was reading Williams’ long-ago, fresh takes from the front line.
I also found hindsight even more useful than usual.
I don’t know how much effort Williams or his publisher put into the book’s organization, but given his famous “essay into rediscovery” take on The Byrds’ Greatest Hits, an album that, half a generation later, affected my own life as profoundly as any album can, I’m guessing the overall effects of this book’s structure were not unintentional.
Which is another way of saying that placing his long interviews with the Doors’ producer Paul Rothchild and Beach Boys’ insider David Anderle near the end was a way of achieving maximum effect.
In one sense those pieces were the hardest to read, because Williams was giving over the space normally occupied by his unique voice to voices that were quite typical. This doesn’t lead to discord. They were all phoning from the same area code. But it does shift the emphasis from writer to interviewer and the insights from the personal to something more generational.
That said, the pieces are as vital as anything else and in some ways more enlightening. I had more trouble getting through the Morrison piece because I’m not as interested in the Doors as I am in the Beach Boys. But in both instances, I knew I was getting more insight into why Jim Morrison and Brian Wilson self-destructed in ten thousand words than in anybody else’s ten thousand pages.
Because that was part of Williams’ gift too. Getting people to talk. You get a sense of both the overwhelming charisma that the most gifted rock stars (meaning rock stars who are something more than “stars”) tend to project, and the tremendous fragility of egos being pressed to literally define the world for millions of people.
Not to mention the degree of free-floating sycophancy that was bound to attach itself and suffocate just about anyone who possessed enough life force to be in that position in the first place–an atmosphere Williams, at times, comes dangerously close to aiding and abetting.
Of course, it’s easy to judge such things from this distance. We know what happened to Jim Morrison and we know what happened to Brian Wilson.
But Williams could not have been entirely surprised. After all, in the moment itself, he saw far enough ahead to write this:
“Beware the baldersnatch, my son. Beware the confusion that comes at the top, that comes from thousands of people waiting for your new album, that comes from record companies standing in line for the right to spend money on you, that comes from fourteen-page magazine articles about how great you are. Remember that you are only you, remember that your prime concern should be doing what is most important to you, but that you have a responsibility, a very real responsibility to every person other than yourself who gets involved in the achieving of your personal goals.”
Few people who covered rock and roll for a living wrote like that then.
Nobody writes like that now.
Before and after he was anything else, Paul Williams was that good old distinctively American type: The Seeker. It isn’t only rock criticism that finds such folks in short supply these days.
Evie Sands was one of rock and roll’s great near-misses and great lost voices.
So it sort of makes sense that I discovered her in a case of forty-fives a friend of mine swapped me during our senior year in high school for helping him cheat on an algebra test that he ultimately failed anyway.
I suspect the main reason he went ahead and made the deal despite being grounded for the rest of the school year by my inability to lift him over the line–and thereby losing the stakes that made it a big enough deal for him to consider cheating in the first place (studying, of course, was simply not a cool option)–was because they were his sister’s forty-fives.
He swore she’d never miss them.
Since I already had enough vinyl in my veins to risk flunking a teacher’s aide class on my way to graduation day–don’t worry, when I was trying to change those neat little minuses into neat little pluses with a mechanical pencil the teacher knew good and well had no place in grading papers (red markers were preferred then as doubtless they still are), he was looking straight over at me, which told me that Edgar Allen Poe knew a thing or two about guilt and that, having cooked up this deal less than forty-eight hours earlier, my friend had probably spent some part of the interim running his mouth about how he had the test in the bag because he had me in the bag–it’s more than a little likely I would have run into Evie somewhere along the way.
Still, that particular forty-five of hers that was hiding in a stack of my friend’s sister’s purloined stash represented a real marker in my development as a record fanatic.
I had already noticed that some records I loved didn’t stay on the radio very long, but when it came to judging the past I was stuck with what still lingered in the air or in the written record–in oldies’ formats or K-tel commercials or my trusty chart books or even stray conversations with people who had been around “back then.”
You know, back in the good old days of five or ten years before when I was technically alive but thoroughly oblivious.
But Sands and her record fit no ready frame of reference in my 1978 world. So “Any Way That You Want Me,” which had come out when I was eight years old, reached me like a talisman from a lost time.
Odd that is had this peculiar effect, because by 1978 I had actually heard enough “oldies” to know that a lot of the record’s elements were perhaps over-familiar. To, in effect, know what I didn’t know.
I did not know, for instance, that the bridge was a direct lift from “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” but if somebody had told me it was, I wouldn’t have been surprised. I mean, hadn’t the Doors ripped the intro to “Touch Me” from the Four Seasons’ “C’mon Marianne?” Sure they had. And didn’t I like springing that one on anybody who thought the Doors were the coolest band ever and made retching noises any time Frankie Valli’s name came up?
Sure I did.
I didn’t doubt there were a lot of reasons why “Any Way That You Want Me” couldn’t be heard on the radio anymore (if it ever had been), why there were no tantalizing snippets on cheesy TV ads, why there was no mention of it in my chart or reference books, which in those days, never seemed to stretch to include anything which hadn’t made the Top 40 unless it was from some serious “artist”’s cool album.
Believe me, I knew Evie Sands singing “Any Way That You Want Me’ wasn’t cool.
I’d have known that much even if it hadn’t been pilfered from a girl.
Maybe some place. Maybe some time.
Not where I lived. Not then.
I even knew–sort of–that there might be troubling socio-political implications in the lyric scenario of a woman pleading with a man to take her any way he’ll have her.
I also knew none of that mattered.
Because the two things that grabbed me were the tone of desperate pleading and the quality of the singer’s voice.
Sometimes that’s all it takes to stop caring about what is cool.
Evie Sands made lots of fine records. As an up and comer with big talent in the New York scene that was turning out the likes of the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las, she should have had a hit with “Take Me For a Little While” in the mid-sixties. Should have, that is, except that somebody swiped the master, took it to Chicago, cut it with soul singer Jackie Ross (who wasn’t aware of the subterfuge), got it on the streets first and muddied the waters so badly that neither version ended up charting nationally even though both caught fire wherever they were played. The fallout within the industry was bad enough to scotch Evie’s followup “I Can’t Let Go,” which was stronger than the hit versions by either the Hollies or, much later, Linda Ronstadt (two artists I happen to love).
Not too long after that the great writer/producer Chip Taylor waxed his masterpiece “Angel of the Morning” with her (after Connie Francis reportedly turned it down) and, again, her killer version took off in numerous local markets.
The orders poured in just as the record label was closing its doors and filing for bankruptcy.
Not long after, Merrilee Rush cut an equally killer version for a record company that wasn’t going bankrupt and her take soared into the top ten, becoming a permanent radio fixture and a direct model for Juice Newton’s big hit in the early eighties.
So it went, until “Any Way That You Want Me” was released in 1969.
It wasn’t quite as much a mystery in its own time as it was a decade later when I encountered it somewhere in the middle of my friend’s sister’s nice little collection of Three Dog Night and Jackson 5 and Isley Brothers’ records and felt myself getting–as the retro-phrase now often used for entirely separate reasons to describe those years goes–dazed and confused.
Like Sands’ earlier major efforts, the record had been a big hit in a bunch of different local markets, including Birmingham, Alabama, which probably had at least some influence on the southern Alabama region that contained the Top 40 stations for the section of the Florida Panhandle where I would pass through high school–the market, that is, where high school girls who had gone off to college by the time I came along and left their forty-five collections unprotected from their dope-smoking, not-into-studying-but-really-don’t-want-to-get-grounded little brothers, were likely to hear the records that drove them into stores with whatever part of their baby-sitting money went for something to spin on the Dansette.
So, unlike those previous near-misses, “Any Way That You Want Me” did not sink without a trace, to await the high end collectors who have kept Evie Sands’ name alive in the collective memory bank, two, three and four decades on. It was, in fact, something of a hit, reaching the middle of Billboard’s Hot 100 nationally and selling around 500,000 copies.
Even then, something held it slightly in check. It rambled around the middle of the charts and became (with, of all things, Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles”) the record that spent the most time on Billboard‘s main chart without cracking the top 50.
Seventeen weeks as it happened.
There have been plenty of top ten and even #1 records that spent less.
Something, then, kept it from breaking out all the way.
Perhaps the fact that the Troggs, who had hit #1 a couple of summers earlier with Taylor’s “Wild Thing”–as far from the sensibilities of “Any Way That You Want Me” as Void is from the Creation (I’ll leave it to each Earthling to decide for his or herself which record is which, and just gently remind all and sundry that one cannot exist without the other)–had released a hit version in the UK in 1966, tipped the Cosmos just slightly.
Or maybe Evie’s version was simply a little too strong, a little too mysterious, contained just a little too much genuine ache, to find its home anywhere but the edge of the frame.
Maybe it was destined to remain half-hidden, waiting for us kindred spirits to discover it by our own haphazard methods.
Some records are like that.
Evie’s career went on for a bit–was, in fact, just winding down when my path intersected hers.
She got an album out of the single’s success and it’s quite fine, featuring the kind of soulful, folkish material that smoky-voiced goddesses like Jackie DeShannon and Bobby Gentry were doing around the same time and, strictly as a vocalist, Sands was very much in their league, even as the plaintive aspects of her timbre put her in a league of her own.
In my world–then and now–that’s saying something.
Unfortunately, the future was already behind her. The chance for sustained, long term success had already flown. There were a couple of modest hits later in the seventies. A couple of decades further along, there was a reunion with Chip Taylor and his partner, Al Gorgoni, which produced a lovely CD called Women In Prison. She still tours and occasionally produces other artists.
The early days are still where the magic is, though.
The magic and the ache.
Boats against the current.
What might have been.
You know the drill.
I happened to first encounter her in that phase of any music lover’s life when discoveries are happening on a near-daily basis. But I suspect that she would have broken through with spectacular force whenever and wherever I found her.
Heck, I don’t even suspect. I know.
I live in America in the age of decline and fall and throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
The past never seems nearer and dearer than when we know the future is behind us.
“He always saw the good side of people and that was his genius. He was the only guy at UCLA who saw something good about Jim. Everyone else thought Jim was a phony or worse. He saw the genius of Jim’s words and the rest is history.”
Robby Krieger (Posting immediately after the announcement of Ray Manzarek’s death).
My mother passed away in 1987. For reasons that aren’t relevant to this little story, I waited five years to visit her grave. On the lazy spring Saturday afternoon I finally decided to drive over, I bought a basket of her favorite flowers (daisies) and, instead of the hop, skip and jump on the interstate, took the long, casual route through the Florida Panhandle on Highway 90 (from Tallahassee, one of the college towns Jim Morrison happened to pass through on his way to meeting up with Fate in Los Angeles, to Campbellton, which is just west of Faye Dunaway’s old childhood haunts in Two Egg and a little bit north of Cottondale, where Dionne Warwick used to grab a headline whenever she visited her grandmother–it really is a small country in some ways).
In those days, like a lot of days prior and more than a few since, the AC on my car wasn’t working (record collectors with modest incomes understand why, at least in youth, certain things are luxuries, even air conditioning in Florida) so I drove with the windows rolled down and the radio on.
It happened that as I pulled up to the stop light directly in front of the Florida state mental hospital, which we really do keep in a place called Chattahoochee, a rough-looking (by which I mean a bit unkempt, not threatening) teenage boy was humping it along the sidewalk on the opposite side of the road, hunch-shouldered, head down, sneakers and a long-sleeved jacket in 85-degree weather, generally doing the James Dean thing.
The breeze must have been blowing in his direction, because, on hearing the music from my radio, he slowed down and then came to a complete stop.
He looked both ways for a bit, as if trying to determine that we were alone.
And then straight at me.
Then he smiled and began nodding his head.
So there, with the sun just beginning to turn to late afternoon gold and the radio playing and me trying to keep the box holding my mother’s basket of daisies from slipping into the floorboard, I found myself suddenly confronting one of those situations that remain indelible ever after because they are occasions for recognizing one of life’s little truisms.
In particular, this:
From about 1967 until some future date yet to be determined, if some rough-looking teenage kid walking in front of a mental hospital doing his James Dean thing suddenly stops and looks both ways and then straight at you and then starts bobbing his head and smiling and knows he doesn’t need to say a word, then the Doors must be playing.
It happened that, at this particular self-defining moment, the song was “Riders on the Storm,” but it probably could have been anything the band ever did.
That’s how it operates in those moments when the Doors–and only the Doors–must be on the radio.
* * * *
To tell the plain truth, I came to the Doors late. I never had a lot of James Dean–and certainly not a lot of Jim Morrison–in me.
If I’m gonna’ be a rebel, I’m gonna’ need a cause.
And, that being the case, I probably did have a little Ray Manzarek in me. I’m still kinda’, sorta’ looking for my cause. He found his when he met Morrison at UCLA in the mid-sixties and it’s very likely that no one else could have synched up with the future Lizard King so thoroughly that great, rough, mind-expanding, era-challenging records would be bound to result.
I like that image from Robby Krieger about others seeing Morrison as a phony and Manzarek’s ability to see through to the core being a genuine gift. Because Jim Morrison was a lot of things but phony wasn’t one of them. (Poseur? Of course, he was that–but, at least the way Jim Morrison played it, that’s a very different thing, because the way Jim Morrison–the one true Rock God who shared full credit and full profits with his bandmates–played it, it just meant that he was kicking the world before it could kick him.)
The way I came to see it finally, when I did come around to the Doors, is that in the Summer of Love, when a whole lot of people saw perpetual grooviness extending into a bright, trippy future and professional cynics like Frank Zappa thought themselves exceptionally clever because they saw new wine in old bottles, Jim Morrison was the one who looked down the long, black tunnel of The Future and saw Charlie Manson and Ted Bundy waiting.
Little wonder he ended the way he did.
Wouldn’t you, if you were him?
The miracle is that he got the chance to put those visions on record at all, and Ray Manzarek was probably more responsible for that than anyone, including perhaps Morrison himself.
And, of course, being a congenial guy, who saw talent–genius even–where others saw fool, wouldn’t have mattered in the least if Manzarek hadn’t also been a wizard on the keys, as the distance between the organ and piano parts below should suffice to demonstrate:
(And all this moody reflection does leave me wondering whether the several downtown apartment complexes who claimed they were the place JIm Morrison stayed when he went to FSU are still using it to bump the rent!)