SANDY DENNY IN ’69 (Vocalist of the Month: 7/18)

“The thing that always amazed me about Sandy, was that she thought she actually could appeal to the masses. Of course she couldn’t….If you’re writing songs that people can shoot themselves to, you know you’re not going to be in the charts.”

(Linda Thompson, wife of Sandy Denny’s greatest band-mate Richard Thompson–quoted in The Guardian, May 5, 2005)

Well, maybe.

There have been times and places where writing songs “people could shoot themselves to” has been something that could get you “in the charts” in a heartbeat.

Ask Kurt Cobain. Ask Amy Winehouse.

Ask Billie Holiday (whose “God Bless the Child,” which, yes, she wrote, didn’t go in the charts but did inspire countless covers and suicides).

Maybe Sandy Denny was just out of her time.

Else too perfectly of her time.

If she was ever too perfectly in tune with times no sane person would have wanted to be in tune with, it was 1969, when, after taking the band by storm at her audition, she released three mind-bending albums with Fairport Convention, thus inventing an English version of folk rock which had no precedents and–once Sandy Denny left the planet in such short order–could have no heirs.

By her third album with Fairport, Liege & Lief, she had taken command.

Being the sort of whirlwind spirit you’d expect on the evidence of Linda Thompson’s quote, the music she made in ’69 (the year she almost made it in the charts) and every picture she ever took, she then moved on: to another band; to a solo career; to a duet with Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant on his band’s most monumental album that was a match for any vocal in the history of sound.

And thence to a solo career and a downward spiral into alcoholism, depression, self-destruction, coma and death.

All within eight years.

Listening to her in ’69, when it must have been possible–for her or anyone–to think no one who sang with that much death in her voice could possibly fail to become an era-defining star while so much death was in the air, one is compelled to wonder whether her future, or ours, could have been different.

1969 was not just any year historically, nor was it just any year vocally.

It was the year of Elvis Presley’s Memphis sessions, Dusty Springfield’s Memphis sessions (which were then re-created in New York), Jerry Butler’s Iceman sessions, Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul, Merle Haggard’s usual three fine albums, Marvin Gaye’s “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby”–great enough to bridge “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and What’s Going On–and that’s just a sampling of the big names).

For life-defining vocals, no year ran deeper.

And Sandy Denny might have had the greatest year of all.

In any year, her combination of power and delicacy was unique. The number of vocalists who could go toe-to-toe with Robert Plant at full tilt is limited. Those who could then deploy a wistful soprano to dive as far inside a song as Billie Holiday make up a list of one.

It is hard to be one of anything.

It must have been something more than hard (and I almost wrote “worse” when I might have meant “better”–she’ll do that to you) to carry the spirit of Stonehenge single-handed into the Age of Aquarius.

Perhaps that’s why, as the year goes on–record by record–she sounds more desperate and more determined.

Bad news, bad news, come to me where I sleep she sings on the year’s  midpoint second album (Unhalfbricking, which also contained her rollicking French version, definitive in any language and her one ride up the charts, of “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”). The lines are Bob Dylan’s. The moment she sings them, you know they’ll never again belong to him or anyone else.

Except maybe the other version of Sandy Denny, who laid down another album or two’s worth of stellar work on the BBC in the same year she made What We Did On Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking, and Liege & Lief :

To listen to it all at once is to be swamped by the notion that sex and desire-the things rock and roll had seemed designed to liberate–have been turned into a series of dungeons under a world of prisons.

If that sounds like a fun place to be then the Sandy Denny of Liege &Lief, in particular, will be the love of your life and–except for maybe the Sandy Denny of other albums here and there–all substitutes will seem silly by comparison.

Even I, with my interest in singers who might have made a deal with the Devil, (because, darn it, deals with the Devil are inherently interesting even if they’re also inherently speculative), have to acknowledge something deeper than speculation is at work in Denny’s voice. Like God, Satan moves in mysterious ways…only the True Believers, the Fundamentalist and the Atheist, forever joined at the hip, manage to convince themselves of either his obviousness or his absence.

And, spectacular as her range was, it was only half the story. Calling her a hard soprano only goes part-way to explaining how she relentlessly, to the point of exhaustion, reached places unavailable to other sopranos. The rest is mystery.

Her first two Fairport albums drew plenty of comparisons to the Band, which was odd since the Band created musical excitement by trading rough-hewn voices, fitted into each other by thousands of nights on the road, while Denny’s band seemed built to contain her one minute and elevate her the next.

She and her mates were barely together a year-and-a-half and spent enough of that time in the studio to record three albums, the last in the throes of an accident that killed drummer Martin Lamble and Thompson’s girlfriend, Jeannie Franklyn–and I wonder if anyone thought Death wasn’t going to follow Sandy Denny around?

Not these people surely….

That’s where the Fairport/Denny collaboration started. In the space of two albums it went everywhere. Well, everywhere Death went anyway. In the beginning, Iain Matthews could lay down what I’ll swear to this day is a vocal nobody could snatch from under him–and no matter how many times I’ve heard it, I never believe even powerhouse Sandy Denny could take it away until the very moment, at the top of the third line, when she does….by going quieter….Or that anyone could grab it back after handing it back the first time….until, with a single powerhouse interpolation in the fade, she does.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bmSEHhIs-Q

All that plus her standard, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” (which she’d already recorded with Strawbs in ’67, and seen become a hit for Judy Collins, who had every bit of Denny’s range and none of her mystery–none of her relationship with the Middle Ages, or her certainty, circa 1969, that the future was just one more past waiting to be reborn), and none of it really preps you for where she took the band, the world and herself on Liege & Lief.

Lief, released in December, Fairport’s third album in twelve months, is essentially a Denny solo record (albeit with strong support), and here at last is what she had probably had in mind all along–what Linda Thompson meant when she gave the quote above, years after Denny’s death. It’s an album filled with murder and other morbid sorts of ballads and a vocal approach so devoid of pop sheen it makes Music from Big Pink sound like The Archies Dig Christmas!

It’s not an easy listen, either aesthetically or emotionally. Getting it, even getting at it, requires a spiritual and physical commitment something akin to what the singer is putting in from the other side.

Death and Sex in other words.

You up for that?

If you are–and I was, once–be prepared to encounter not merely a bleak vision but an intricately defined twilight world, full of sharp detail one moment and movement in the shadows that never moves from the corner of your mind’s eye the next, where everyone’s trapped behind castle walls and the only viable sex is an endless cycle of rape and childbirth and revenge where and you will love your child is a curse.

You didn’t forget she had a deal with the Devil did you?

It turned out the Sandy Denny who chased stardom through three bands in four years and laid down tracks as scarifying as this along the way…

was only playing around.

Her voice had always been poised between acceptance and revenge.

I’ll kill myself…but only if I convince myself I can’t kill you instead.

There was always more than a hint of real terror in the concept and it’s heightened on Liege & Lief, where”Tam Lin” and “Matty Groves” go on forever…until you get them, after which you’re mostly just afraid for them to end.

This is not the silliness of something like The Handmaid’s Tale….a fantasy about a future world ruled by Fundamentalist Christians who have developed ideas about women and fertility that are remarkably similar to those of certain contemporary jihadis Margaret Atwood or the honchos at Hulu dare not call out for fear of discovering who the really dangerous people are. No, it’s dread that predates our modern ideas of merely having fantasies spoiled and calling it persecution.

At least that was how I heard it the last time I listened…maybe the first time I truly got it.

I could imagine the spell–that is the right word–breaking.

I could wake up tomorrow and find it gone. I could imagine never listening to Liege & Lief again (though, oddly, not “Nottamun Town.”) I could imagine being relieved if that were the case.

But I know I’d be a fool if I tricked myself into thinking I had reached a better understanding or gotten to the bottom of the dungeon.

What Sandy Denny  produced in 1969–the way she used that hard soprano’s most startling and pitiless elements to invent a world as new as tomorrow’s gloomy sunrise and discover one as old as a cave painting–was a body of work any artist worthy of the name would kill for if only it could be got by bending to man’s baser nature.

Alas, 1969 was the peak.

Perhaps there was nowhere to go but down.

In any case, down she went.

There was another year, another band (Fotheringay). Then she rode high with Led Zeppelin in their finest hour (as their only guest vocalist and you can hear why even they might have been a little shy of taking it any further). She partied hard with the rowdiest English rock and rollers, determined to drink every one of them under the table. She made four solo albums.

There was a tempestuous marriage and a child who was soon taken from her for the child’s own good.

Then she took to making dramatic falls, some intentional, some not. Some down stairways, one of which finally damaged her brain.

Either that or the booze finally put her in a coma, where, in 1978, six weeks before I graduated high school, blissfully and painfully unaware of her existence, she died of old age at 31, still waiting, in some sense, to be discovered by the people who wanted to shoot themselves.

One more victim of the 60s. then.

The 1360s.

I expect she’ll still be here–or there–when we’re all back where we belong.

LAND OF THE PHARAOHS (And Then There Was Hollywood: Fourth Rumination)

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)
D. Howard Hawks

(NOTE: Contains mild spoilers)

Hollywood has never known quite what to do with the feral versions of Siren Sex. No woman who has possessed it in sufficient abundance to make ignoring it impossible has ever sustained major stardom without cloaking it under a serviceable veneer, usually The Comedienne (see Jean Harlow, Mae West, Marilyn Monroe) or The Actress (see Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Angelina Jolie…Monroe died trying to make the leap).

Lately, Jolie and Scarlett Johansson have been able to work a variation, Action Girl, where the Siren quality can be safely subsumed by Special Effects.

Pack enough CGI on the screen and the Sex can blend with the scenery.

Beside all that, you have the long history of women who couldn’t or wouldn’t shape themselves to fit what the world could handle. Hence a long list of actresses whose careers tend to be summed up by the crit-illuminati with some version of why do you suppose they didn’t amount to more, poor things.

Gloria Grahame and Marie Windsor were partially saved from this ignominy by the happy accident of having their prime years coincide with those of film noir. But later shoulda beens–Karen Black, Rosanna Arquette, Ileana Douglas, Rebecca DeMornay, to name only a few of the more obvious–were left stranded in the Brief-Flirtation-With-Stardom-Inevitably-Reduced-to-Working-Actress category.

It’s always been a fine line to walk, but the hard parameters have remained the same from the days of the Hays Code to our current enlightened state of Free Unlimited Porn on the Internet.

Sex, yes.

But please don’t radiate it.

Which brings us to this:

That’s just the black and white version. Of Joan Collins in 1955.

It doesn’t matter if she’s not your type, or that it’s the only still I could find from this Technicolor extravaganza (which the illuminati are universally confident can be dismissed as “camp,” a word they often deploy to dismiss anything they find unsettling….they’re prudes before they’re anything else, no matter how much porn they brag about watching) that comes close to matching the flesh impact Collins has in the film, where, with nothing vulnerable or modern about her, she seems to have been cast as the antithesis of the Hawksian woman.

Of course, she’d have to be something other than modern or vulnerable, given she’s playing someone who had to survive in a time and place where feral sex was one of the few qualities present that is still recognizable (if barely) in our own.

Here’s an attempt to understand it all, from The Guardian, circa 2013:

Khufu has her flogged. “Education is sometimes painful, isn’t it?” he gloats to her afterwards. This is the kind of line that makes a character permanently irredeemable, and the screenwriters (who included Nobel laureate William Faulkner) clearly couldn’t work out how to fix it. So the voiceover just says: “In the succeeding weeks, she became the favourite of the pharaoh. They were married and she became his second wife.” What? How? Why?

It’s nice, of course, that, for now, we live comfortably ensconced in a world where flogging a girl before you marry her is “irredeemable.” But I’m always a little bemused when someone who fusses over Wronged History–dates, places, English accents on Egyptian Pharaohs–because it doesn’t allow the properly educated to either close the distance or keep it at arm’s length (I’m never sure which), can’t bring himself to acknowledge the part that rings true.

Anyone who is really confused about what Pharaoh sees in Joan Collins’ princess–why she might become his favorite once he thinks a good flogging has tamed her–is too stupid to be writing for publication. Anyone who lies about it is….well, you can make up your own mind about those who pretend not to comprehend the obvious, whatever the subject.

But it was Hollywood’s problem before it was The Guardian‘s, and mankind’s long before it was Pharaoh’s.

Yes, Jack Hawkins is badly miscast as an Egyptian. That’s a hole in the movie even Collins can’t quite fill, though she might have with a director who understood feral sex, or a world that ran on it, as something other than perversion (the only time Hawks got the concept across was with Ann Dvorak’s incestuous sister act in Scarface, which was a long way behind him by 1955).

Instead, he–or Hollywood, or Faulkner the Laureate–knew no better than to reduce Collins’ princess to a standard issue shamed harlot in the final scene, when, having been reunited with Pharaoh’s boundless treasure for eternity, she should be in her element and smiling triumph over the peons who think they’ve tricked her.

It’s not a surprise, though.

Failing to punish her for greed, lust and murder in an “unenlightened” world that thrived on all three, would have required real sophistication on someone’s part.

Faced with a character–and an actress–who was nobody’s idea of a Good Wife, Hawks lost his nerve. That, his relatively lackluster hand with crowd scenes (a rather important deficiency in a Sword and Sandals epic filmed on location with the proverbial cast of thousands), and the absence of Yul Brynner, broke his twenty-five year run of commercial and critical success.

Though it lost money, Land of the Pharaohs was hardly a disaster on the first count. And it has gained defenders over the years, including some, like Martin Scorcese and me, who agree on little else. Hawks’ gift for interior scenes and memorable sets is intact and Collins’ performance is a rejection of camp, ferocious enough that it took a quarter-century, middle-age, and the damp squab of real camp on television, for anyone to find any version of it, or her, the least bit acceptable.

I’ll always revisit Land of the Pharaohs.

I’ll always wish it was a little bit better.

I’ll always get at little restless, waiting for the jolt of energy Collins’ entrance gives it and I’ll always marvel at how she sustains it in every scene until the false ending lets her down.

And I’ll always reserve a smile for those who think mankind–and Hollywood–not knowing what to do about Vulgar Sex is the same as having left it all safely behind.