Culture creates the space for art, not the other way around, so when a culture collapses, its art does too.
I guess the only good thing about being left among the fragments now rapidly spinning through our collapsed space and cutting each other to shards, is, if somebody asks whether I get to decide if it’s art just because I like it, I get to say….Why not?
But the reason the Swampers, and the little Alabama hole in the wall recording studio where they shook the world, were in Muscle Shoals was because Rick Hall, trying to make his mark outside of Memphis, without resorting to Nashville, fetched up there and set up the third point of American music’s great Southern triangle. Rick Hall was Fame Studios and Fame Studios was Rick Hall.
They both ended up being a lot of other things. A whole lot of people contributed. Mostly black artists and mostly white session men with a mix of songwriters, all trying to prove each other to each other in the classic Southern style while George Wallace’s Alabama (where Hall made a point of frequenting local diners in the company of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett) tried to turn back the clock all around them.
But it was Hall’s vision and once he took hold of it Southern Soul and the world it was born to save were never quite the same.
It was from Hall’s place that the careers of Arthur Alexander and Percy Sledge and Clarence Carter and Joe Tex and Candi Staton were launched and those of Etta James and Aretha Franklin (specifically chasing Sledge’s success) were reborn. And that was just the tip of a mighty iceberg. Shamefully, he died without entering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (can’t blame the voters for that one–nods to visionary producers and label owners are in the hands of the Hall’s own committee).
Doesn’t matter. I just got the playlist from the Entrance Commission at the Pearly Gates.
I’m hearing it’s the greatest night ever. Smoked Jerry Wexler’s entry party and they’re swearing even Berry Gordy’s gonna have to run to keep up…(The Wilson Pickett cut is live and not to be missed).
Hope your vision comes all the way true where you are now brother….Because it sure is lying in tatters down here.
[NOTE: I’ve posted this video before, but in a different context. It felt right to post it again because it’s context grows by the year. So maybe call it re-found in the connection.]
I’m a sucker for hope…but it’s exceeding rare to pull up a modern clip of some group doing one of their old hits from the prime days of Rock and Roll America (50’s, 60’s, 70’s) and find it enlarged. As often than not, if there’s an exception, it’s because the Cowsills got together in some environment where they were being well-recorded, like this clip from a concert they gave as a benefit to their cancer-stricken brother Billy, who had been the group’s resident genius-in-training until their father kicked him out of the band (and the house), killing their career just as the “family group” ethos they had more or less invented was taking off.
Believe me, no post-millennial reunion of the Jacksons, Osmonds, DeFrancos or Partridge Family ever has or could produce anything like this….let alone while playing their own instruments.
(Barry Cowsill, at the far right, would vanish in Hurricane Katrina a year later. His body washed up two months later. The others got the news of Billy’s death while they were holding Barry’s wake. I’ve heard about life being a bitch…but serendipity? It’s a bit much!)
(My favorite rock critic, at 41, the year I was born.)
The earliest memory I retain with any certainty happened when I was four (or five) years old. It was the Christmas season of 1964 (or 1965). My favorite rock critic and and my sister and I were walking through a shopping mall (somewhere in Florida…my memory says Merritt Square, the internet says it didn’t open until 1970 so maybe it was Titusville or even Orlando…I know I wasn’t nine, I swear my memory is at least that clear). My favorite rock critic was holding my hand (or else my sister was). They were piping music through the mall (or whatever it was). I wasn’t paying the least attention to the music. Until I was. Something new and wonderful started playing (or maybe it was the chorus that got me) and I broke away from whoever was holding my hand and started running towards that sound.
The only problem was, the sound was being piped over speakers that pointed from every direction. This probably saved me from getting lost in a bustling Christmas crowd, because, having completely lost my senses, I started running around in circles. My favorite rock critic could no longer run, so it was left to my sister to finally catch me, after which they both kept asking me “What is it?”
I couldn’t tell them.
(My favorite rock critic, my brother-in-law and me, circa the time period in question. Memory says the play list was heavy on Peter, Paul & Mary. Lovely. But they were not who was playing at the mall…or wherever.)
I probably knew the words “music” and “song.” They were concepts my favorite rock critic lived for. But, in that moment, overwhelmed by that sound, I wasn’t able to call up the words. My senses weren’t merely lost but overwhelmed. I was, for the first and last time in my life, experiencing a strange, benumbing combination of physical pain and an insistent inner command to laugh out loud, which, for some reason, I could not obey.
All I could do was keep pointing at the roof of the mall (or wherever it was).
And that was all I was ever able to do.
Years later, when I finally bought the record that was playing over some set of surround sound speakers somewhere in Central Florida in 1964 or 1965 (on an “oldies” 45, which I still have), I didn’t even think to ask my favorite rock critic if she remembered this little incident. Nor did I ever think to ask afterwards. Because I didn’t think to ask, I’ll never know.
She loved the record. I remember that much. My favorite rock critic had killer taste. Just listen and hear…
* * * *
My favorite rock critic never bought records herself (she was into sheet music).
(My favorite rock critic, a little later on. With her sheet music….Or somebody’s.)
There were some kids’ records around the house when I was growing up, and some albums my father picked up at thrift stores, mostly Broadway soundtracks or easy listening instrumentals. I listened here and there after I learned to work the stereo’s record player. If I listened to the radio, it was to Braves’ games or college football. Never the radio. If I knew the words to any pop song, “Snowbird” say, it was from my favorite rock critic’s song books, the vast majority of which were religious. My favorite rock critic arranged and directed church choirs when she wasn’t singing in them or, more likely, in front of them. There was music everywhere at my house. Just not much rock and roll.
The first peak at my own future came when my sister moved out, for the last time, after my brother-in-law came back from Viet Nam. She left her 45s, which consisted of a Little Richard that was too beat up to play (I can close my eyes and still see every single thing on that Specialty label except the title), Gale Garnett’s “We’ll Sing In the Sunshine,” which I liked well enough to learn the words to (and which I still have), and this one (which I also still have):
Unless maybe it can be traced to that experience above (about which more later…reveal at the end!), I don’t doubt my inordinate affection for what, in those days, were still called “girl” singers, dates from the summer afternoons when I was ten, eleven, twelve, when I played “Ode to Billie Joe” ten, eleven, twelve times in a row, day after day, while my favorite rock critic went about her business, never once asking me to stop or play something else or even becoming the least exasperated when I asked her, yet again, for the tenth or eleventh or twelfth time “What does it mean?”
“There were a lot of rumors when it came out,” she would say. “But nobody really knows.”
I was convinced, in those days, that my favorite rock critic, the most honest person I knew (or ever would know), was keeping some horrible adult secret from me. I was convinced of it, even though she never had the least bit of trouble telling me I was too young if I really was. Such is the power of the Gothic tale.
By the way, I’ll save my deep thoughts for a “How Much Can One Record Mean” post some day, but this much I can say here: There are still a lot of rumors about what “Ode to Billie Joe” means. And just because Bobbie Gentry has taken a stab at explaining it herself, doesn’t mean anybody really knows.
* * * *
You might think that, having been captured by a 45, I would seek to replicate the experience. I did not. I’m not sure why. Money would certainly have been an object. I didn’t have any. I did not get an allowance. Any money I made working for my father, from nine to nineteen, went into a college fund (which would remain untouched and, in its interest-bearing entirety, one day pay for exactly three months at university…there were reasons we did not buy many records at my house).
But it’s just as possible that, being surrounded by music in the house, I did not feel any great need to seek it elsewhere. And still more possible that being captured by that particular 45 put a brake on what might otherwise have been my natural development.
In any case, time passed, and we moved to another part of the state. For reasons I went on at some length about here and here and here, I became a record junkie.
And a smart aleck.
One day, in my full-blown smart-alecky phase–sixteen maybe, or seventeen–I was listening to the radio in my room (yeah I listened to the real radio by then, a lot). The local Top 40 came out of South Alabama and played a mix of current hits and oldies. It was a Saturday and me and my favorite rock critic were cleaning my room and one of Roy Orbison’s ballads came on. “Only the Lonely” if memory serves. Roy at his greatest. Elvis’ favorite singer. I thought I’d play a smart aleck joke on my favorite rock critic, who was a huge Elvis fan, so I spent two and a half minutes convincing her it was Elvis. She didn’t buy it at first, but I was so convincing, and she so much believed I was sufficiently like her that I wouldn’t treat such a thing frivolously or pointlessly, that she finally accepted my truth. Elvis sang “Only the Lonely.”
One of Elvis’s ballads came on. God help me if it wasn’t “Love Me Tender,” which, perhaps sacrilegiously, I’ve never really considered primo Elvis and, as a record, wouldn’t consider in the same league with “Only the Lonely” even to this day.
Except…The joke, my joke, was about the voices. Not the records.
As my favorite rock critic liked to tell people with a smile ever after, when she, never I, would bring up the story: “And you could hear the difference. . . .Right away.”
By which she meant, you could hear why Elvis was Elvis, even on “Love Me Tender” and why even Roy Orbison wasn’t, even on “Only the Lonely.”
And, God help me, you could.
That was the last time I tried to play a musical joke on anybody, let alone my favorite rock critic.
But something about that moment made us closer (perhaps I should say even closer) than we had been. I think the shock I felt at being so coyly betrayed by the Cosmos, and the clarity with which I learned my lesson, left her with a feeling that we might meet in the middle on my new favorite subject…that she might yet teach me something about it that couldn’t be learned in books.
She taught me.
One thing she taught me was not to take professional rock critics too seriously. A few years later, I gave her Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train, with which I was very much impressed at the time, to read. Her response to the Elvis part was, “Well, at least he treated him with some respect.” Which was her way of saying he didn’t quite get it, a judgment which time has confirmed. On the other hand, her response to Marcus’s description of Randy Newman’s “Sail Away,” (“a vision of heaven superimposed on a vision of hell”), which I read to her right after I played her the record, was: “Yes, that’s perfect.” Meaning both the record and the description, judgments time has also confirmed.
And she “got” things I didn’t get but someday would: Everything from Grease to, yes, Elvis.
Most of all, my favorite rock critic got voices. Their power, their seduction and, above all else, their cost. The only two voices she ever described as being “like an angel,” were Martin Luther King’s and Karen Carpenter’s. I’m not sure I took that comparison (which she never made directly) all that seriously. Kinda silly really. Until Karen Carpenter turned up dead. Turned out, my favorite rock critic knew, just by listening, who was likely to be chased out of this world by hellhounds. So while I didn’t know if she was wise beyond her years, I soon learned she was wise beyond mine. There was, for instance, no chance anyone raised by my favorite rock critic would ever be taken in by Johnny Rotten (the way to dusty death for me, whatever he meant to you).
Thus, there were some happy days, of which a few still stand out:
One day I was listening to this…
…and she asked me who it was. When I told her, she smiled and nodded and said: “I knew it had to be brothers. Only families can harmonize like that.”
Another day, (the day after I brought it home and played it as incessantly as I’d played “Ode to Billie Joe” once upon a time), this…
My favorite rock critic: “Now who did that song you were playing last night.”
Me: “A group called the Shangri-Las.”
My favorite rock critic (with her familiar smile and nod): “I thought it was them. I always remembered them because they were always so different.”
Another day, this…
…to which, assuredly: “That’s as good as Little Richard.”
Another day, this (just out on the radio)…
The opening chord was chiming as we pulled into a parking space at the bank, me driving (she didn’t), me in control of the radio (she always let me), me ready to go inside, her saying: “Oh let’s listen to this.” To this day, I don’t know whether my favorite rock critic loved the song or just knew I did. She’d have told me if I asked. But my favorite rock critic knew I wouldn’t.
Voices. Or maybe just sounds.
Another day, this…
My favorite rock critic, with her eyes closed, ten seconds into hearing it for the first time and not knowing the Band from Adam: “They must have played together for years to have that kind of timing.”
Voices. Or sounds.
Another day, it might be this…
And my favorite rock critic would say something like “Where do you find these?” and I would be able to recount little tales of the record collector’s art that, among other things, demonstrated that professional rock critics were not always entirely worthless!
(My favorite rock critic in her element. That’s our long-gone stereo behind the chair. I still have the guitar. I can’t play a lick and it’s one of exactly three physical possessions that will have to be pried from my cold, dead fingers.)
Then, one day, it was late in the game, toward the change, when the happy days weren’t so common and were more typified by me playing something like this…
And my favorite rock critic, eyes closed, her own voice racked by age and disease, sighing and saying, “I used to sing like that.” To which my father, befuddled, said “You never sounded like that.” Meaning my favorite rock critic was an operatic soprano, not a soul baritone. To which I said, as gently as I could: “That’s not what she meant.” Meaning even my favorite rock critic never spoke truer.
(My favorite rock critic, near the end of happy days)
Anybody who has followed the blog knows my favorite rock critic was a major Elvis fan.
They may not know that she always thought if she could have reached Elvis somehow she could have saved his life. Tom Petty was among the many who thought the same. I doubt anyone could have, but if anyone could have, I’d have bet on my favorite rock critic before I bet on anyone else.
They may know that my favorite rock critic used to tell stories about singing with the hobos, who eventually taught her to hop trains, in the Salisbury, North Carolina train yard when she was barely older than I was when I had my first musical memory.
They may not know that she started to give me and our pastor’s son guitar lessons but went in the hospital two lessons in for one of her longer stays. By the time she got out, the pastor’s son was on summer vacation. By the time he got back, his father had found a new church. I don’t think either she or I knew that the real reason I didn’t want to take guitar lessons again was that my nine or ten-year-old self–not much younger than she was when she hopped those trains and rode them only to the edge of town–arrived at some subconscious conclusion that guitar lessons equaled hospital visits and there were enough of those already.
That’s how it is, sometimes, when your favorite rock critic happens to be the person who brought you into this world.
If I’m even a little bit better person than I was born to be, I have my favorite rock critic to thank. And wherever she is now, I know she can see and hear my earliest memory–wherever and whenever it was–far more clearly than I can.
And, if she ever thinks about that moment when I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off, wherever and whenever it was, I know she’s smiling, knowing it turned out okay.
Here’s to then. . . .And to Voices. And sounds.
Happy Mother’s Day!
(Next Up: My Favorite Music to Break Rulers By…By Which I Mean the Kind You Can Use for Drumsticks If You Don’t Have Drums)
Yeah, it was (eventually) a marketing concept. Also (eventually) a “genre.”
But before, during and after all that, it was also an Aesthetic. That’s the history I’m trying to trace here (before I head into my multi-part dissertation on the vocal history of soul–I’m up to five categories and counting so we’ll just have to see how long that takes).
I’ll just add that, if the current charts are any real measure of such things, as plenty of people believe, then this is by far the most influential genre of rock and roll extant.
Make of that what you will.
Meanwhile…. (as always, I’ve linked a combination of live, synched and studio versions, with an eye toward balancing fun and education. And as always, some of the info on background singers is fuzzy to say the least. I’ve done my best but if you spot a mistake or can fill in any missing blanks, please give me a shout in the comments section and I will update accordingly.)
“Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Bop”–Little Anthony and the Imperials (Anthony Gourdine, lead vocal; Tracey Lord, Nathaniel Rogers, Clarence Collins, Ernest Wright, harmony vocals): Silly, smooth and sublime on every level. As good a place to start as any once I figured out Frankie Lymon was too rough around the edges.
“I Will Follow Him”–Little Peggy March: “The Producer” steps up, throws a hundred-mile-an-hour fastball. Singer takes a deep breath and hits a five-hundred-foot home run that lands at #1 Pop and #1 R&B, establishing a key dynamic of the Aesthetic whilst identifying its great theme: Hormones!
“Denise”–Randy and the Rainbows (Dominick “Randy” Safuto, lead vocal; Frank Safuto, Mike Zero, Sal Zero, Ken Arcipowski, harmony vocals): Ode to a Girl: Volume I.
“Hanky Panky”–Tommy James and the Shondells (Tommy James, lead vocal): The Sun God in training, as a first-rank garage band singer. (Recorded,1964; #1 Pop, 1966)
“Let’s Lock the Door (And Throw Away the Key)”–Jay and the Americans: (Jay Black, lead vocal; Howard Kane, Kenny Vance, Sandy Deanne, harmony vocals): Doo wop pros from way back. They were often good. Just this once, they were as good as the Four Seasons. “Just this once” is a very key element of Naked Truth (not to mention “rock and roll”) aesthetics!
“Iko, Iko”–The Dixie Cups (Barbara Ann Hawkins, Rosa Lee Hawkins, Joan Marie Johnson, shared lead and harmony vocals): Chant power by way of New Orleans, which has to be in the basic DNA of this stuff somewhere. (Alternate: Lee Dorsey’s “Ya-Ya.”)
“I Want Candy”–The Strangeloves (Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein, Richard Gottehrer, shared lead and harmony vocals): NY session pros pretending to be Aussies to cash in on the British Invasion. Hey, the hunt for cash is never far from any true rock and roll endeavor! If they had hooked up with Tommy James, they would have kicked this thing into overdrive three years early, because the singer is the only thing missing. (Notably remade by Bow Wow Wow, who took the whole naked part of the Naked Truth quite literally.)
“My Boy Lollipop”–Millie Small: Truth to tell, this is not a big favorite of mine, but it put Jamaica on the map in a way I suspect Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff or Toots Hibbert couldn’t have possibly done in 1965.
Beatles? …We don’t need no stinkin’ Beatles!
“Last Train to Clarksville”–The Monkees (Mickey Dolenz, lead vocal; harmony vocals by “unknown”): Writer/producers Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart have said this was essentially a Viet Nam record. David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren included it in their Heartaches By the Number (a terrific list of five hundred essential country records). Twelve-year-old girls went ape by the millions. Don Kirshner laughed all the way to the bank. None of them were wrong.
“Come on Down to My Boat”–Every Mother’s Son (Larry Larden, lead vocal; harmony vocals by “I ain’t real sure”): Signed as a “nice” garage band by the corporate overlords, they had one sly classic in them: about the hunt for poontang, naturally. Just what you’d expect from nice boys operating undercover.
“Snoopy and the Red Baron”–The Royal Guardsmen (Barry Winslow, lead vocal, Chris Nunley, harmony vocals…along with…possibly….others): More Brit-fakes, by way of Ocala, Florida. Actually, a derailed garage band. And, just vocally speaking, a perfect blend of the Monkees and the Swinging Medallions.
“Just My Style”–Gary Lewis and the Playboys (Gary Lewis, lead vocal, Ron Hicklin, bass and harmony vocal and, er, “vocal guidance”): Young Hollywood’s version of the malt shop. Meaning it’s so ersatz it hurts, but the bass vocal is a killer.
(Tommy James, a.k.a. “The Sun God,” accepting an award from Hubert Humphrey, for whom he served as “Official Youth Advisor” in the 1968 presidential campaign. The Naked Truth was everywhere.)
“I Think We’re Alone Now”–Tommy James and the Shondells (Tommy James, lead vocal): The Sun God finds His voice. The concept crystallizes. (Note: Best I can tell, various Shondells sang harmony vocals on all records by the group from this point forward but I can’t find an authoritative session listing so I’ll leave it at that.)
“Mony, Mony”–Tommy James and the Shondells (Tommy James, lead vocal): The Sun God reminds everyone that He started life leading a gutbucket garage band. Then He considerably ups the ante.
“Little Bit O’ Soul”–The Music Explosion (Jamie Lyons, lead vocal): Actually quite a bit more than a little. This could fit the blue-eyed soul category or the garage band category or just the blow-your-throat-out category, but their bosses (a couple of guys names Katz and Kasenetz, see image above) were working up to something….so it’s slotted here.
“Incense and Peppermints”–The Strawberry Alarm Clark (Greg Munford, lead vocal): Munford was actually a sixteen-year-old ringer, hired for this session only. The rest of the band? “In their early days of touring, the band members would often sit on ‘magic carpets’ as their roadies carried them to the stage and drummer Randy Seol would rig up wrist gas jets to give the illusion that he was playing the bongos and vibes with his hands on fire. This last gimmick was soon abandoned when it got to be too dangerous.” If that ain’t the Naked Truth, there’s no such thing.
“Daydream Believer”–The Monkees (Davy Jones, lead and harmony vocals; Mickey Dolenz, harmony vocals): There’s a piece of the sixties residing in this record–and specifically in Davy Jones’s vocal–that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Would we be any better off if it did?God only knows.
“Savoy Truffle”–The Beatles (George Harrison, lead vocal, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, harmony vocals): Edges “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” for the chewiest cut from the Aesthetic’s greatest conceptual album–the concept being a double album which, before Charles Manson got hold of it, was a perfect and completely abstract celebration of….Itself! Also a splinter under the skin of the entire sixties. Sometimes, the Truth is a little too Naked.
“She’d Rather Be With Me”–The Turtles (Howard Kaylan, lead vocal; Mark Volman, harmony vocal): I wouldn’t call them mercenaries just because they were every bit as convincing here as they ever were at surf-rock or folk-rock or whatever you want to call that album just around the corner that included “Surfer Dan” (“He’s so ripped he can’t see you go by” and I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (“We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts”). I’d call them eclectic visionaries who could handle a line as tricky as “Some girls like to run around/They like to handle everything they see” with admirable aplomb and I’d put them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But then I’m not part of the Conspiracy-That-Rules-Us….am I?
“Indian Lake”–The Cowsills (Billy Cowsill, lead vocal, Bob Cowsill, Barry Cowsill, Paul Cowsill, Susan Cowsill, Barbara Cowsill, harmony vocals): Billy Cowsill hated his transcendent moment, which was forced on him by “management” (i.e., his abusive dad). According to Susan, Brian Wilson loved it. Brian Wilson knew best.
“Yummy, Yummy, Yummy” and (preferably) “Chewy, Chewy”–Ohio Express (Joey Levine, lead vocal): Er, remember Katz and Kasenetz? Well, they’re back and, okay, now it’s a marketing category. Joey Levine and whoever does that chirping on “Chewy, Chewy” save the day.
“This Magic Moment”–Jay and the Americans: (Jay Black, lead vocal; Howard Kane, Kenny Vance, Sandy Deanne, harmony vocals): Want to drive an Establishmentarian absolutely crazy? Make him hate you forever? Say this is as good as the Drifters. Doesn’t matter if it’s true. Just go ahead and say it anyway. Get Naked!
(Monkees?….We don’t need no stinkin’ Monkees!)
“Sugar, Sugar” and “Seventeen Ain’t Young”–The Archies (Ron Dante, lead and harmony vocals, Toni Wine and Andy Kim, harmony vocals): The Beatles had just done “Ob-La-Di, Ob-la-da.” Seriously, they needed to go. It was the Archies who broke up too soon. [Footnote: the Cuff Links’ “Tracy” didn’t quite make the cut, but it’s worth noting that Dante was the first (and I believe only) lead vocalist of the rock and roll era to have two songs in the Top Ten at the same time with two different groups. Of course he was!]
“Hair”–The Cowsills (Billy Cowsill, lead vocal, Bob Cowsill, Barry Cowsill, Paul Cowsill, Susan Cowsill, Barbara Cowsill, harmony vocals): Banned in Viet Nam. You bet. One of rock’s greatest productions and arrangements, (vocally and every other way)–created nearly as obsessively as “Good Vibrations,” courtesy of Bob and Billy (and the fact that little brother John needed fifty-something takes to get the drum part right…these days, he drums for, you guessed it, the Beach Boys). It sold two million plus and their manager Dad almost immediately kicked Billy to the curb, leaving the Jackson, Osmond and Cassidy families to reap the enormous benefits of the vacuum.
“Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)”–Edison Lighthouse (Tony Burrows, lead vocal; harmony vocals by some assemblage of British session singers): Ode to a girl, Volume II. The Secret Agent, a.k.a. Tony Burrows, arrives.
“United We Stand”–Brotherhood of Man (Tony Burrows and Sunny Leslie, lead and harmony vocals; Sue Glover, John Goodison and Roger Greenaway, harmony vocals): The Secret Agent under another of his many guises. Here trumped, for the only time in his career, by Sunny Leslie.
“Montego Bay”–Bobby Bloom: The Naked Truth, Island style. Bloom split his time in the music business between singing jingles and engineering records for the likes of late period Louis Jordan. He shot himself in 1974, the year of the Apotheosis. Accidentally, of course.
“Sweet Cherry Wine”–Tommy James and the Shondells (Tommy James, lead vocal): Hey, there had to be at least one great anti-war bubblegum drinking song. Who else was gonna provide it?
“Which Way You Goin’ Billy?”–The Poppy Family (Susan Jacks, lead vocal; Terry Jacks, harmony vocal): Once in a while, even the Naked Truth must stand before the Void.
(Wait…now Motown is involved? This is getting serious…)
“I Want You Back,”“ABC” and “The Love You Save” (Michael Jackson, lead and harmony vocals; Jermaine and Jackie Jackson, second lead and harmony vocals; Tito Jackson and Marlon Jackson, harmony vocals): Biff. Boom. Pow. Courtesy of Motown. And, from there, the emergence of the concept’s transcendent star, who would eventually crack under the strain and rain sorrow everywhere he went.
“One Bad Apple,”“Double Lovin” and “Yo-Yo”–The Osmonds (Merrill Osmond, lead vocal; Donnie Osmond, second lead and harmony vocals; Jay Osmond, Alan Osmond and Wayne Osmond, harmony vocals): Biff. Boom. Pow. Courtesy of Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals and real competition for the J5 no matter what you might have heard. Then, of course, they decided to go it on their own. Oh, well, it was fun while it lasted.
“Tighter, Tighter”–Alive ‘N’ Kickin’ (Pepe Cardona, Sandy Toder, lead and harmony vocals): Side project for the Sun God. He gave them this one after He decided to keep “Crystal Blue Persuasion” for Himself. I’m still not sure He made the right call, though, to be fair, even He couldn’t have bettered this.
“I’ll Be There”–The Jackson 5 (Michael Jackson, lead vocal, Jermaine Jackson, second lead and harmony vocals, Jackie Jackson, Marlon Jackson and Tito Jackson, harmony vocals): So ethereal it really oughta float away. It’s Jermaine who keeps it on track and it’s the contrast between the two leads straining to live up to a concept supposed to be far beyond their years that makes it transcendent.
“I Think I Love You”–The Partridge Family (David Cassidy, lead vocal, Shirley Jones, Ron Hicklin, John Bahler, Tom Bahler and Jackie Ward, harmony vocals): While the TV show was on the air, the great photographer Lynn Goldsmith did a photo shoot with Cassidy. One night while they were walking on the beach, he said “You know, Lynn, I’m a legend in my own time.” The Aesthetic could do that to a guy.
“Indiana Wants Me”–R. Dean Taylor: Of course, in any Aesthetic this quintessentially, buck-chasing, All-American there had to be a murder ballad. And the complete lack of sociopolitical import–reflected in both the lyrics and Taylor’s superbly callow vocal–probably runs a lot closer to the true spirit of the sort of guy who ends up running from the law saying things like “If a man ever needed dyin’ he did/No one had the right to say what he said…about you,” than anything ever managed by Johnny Cash or Bruce Springsteen (who, for better and worse, has spent a large chunk of his life trying to re-write this).
“Ballroom Blitz”–Sweet: (Brian Connolly and Steve Priest, shared lead and harmony vocals; Andy Scott and Mick Tucker, harmony vocals): Blitzkreig is more like it, “glam” being the Naked Truth’s logical next step. Recorded in 1973, a US hit in 1975.
“How Do You Do”–Mouth & MacNeal (Willem Duyn, a.k.a. “Big Mouth,” and Maggie MacNeal, shared lead and harmony vocals): Caveman and Cinderella. Cinderella’s two-line solo verse may be the Aesthetic’s finest vocal moment.
(Elton John on Soul Train..it was that kind of time.)
“Rock Me Gently”–Andy Kim: The Apotheosis of the Apotheosis. By a former Archie, of course. (Would really like some help identifying the background singer(s) on this one!) UPDATE: Wikipedia has come through. Carol Carmichael and Company….though it’s unclear if there was really a Company or just overdubs. In any case brilliant. She also reportedly did the harmony vocals on Albert Hammond’s “It Never Rains in Southern California” which is enough to justify any human’s life.)
“Beach Baby”–First Class (Tony Burrows, lead and harmony vocals; Chas Mills, harmony vocals): The rumor was, this was the Beach Boys recording under another name. An Australian DJ played it for Brian Wilson who said it wasn’t the Beach Boys but it was definitely West Coast America. Actually it was recorded in London by a bunch of English session pros headed by the Secret Agent. But that’s just geography. I prefer to think Brian was referring to a state of mind…in which case he was dead on. (The link is fun and is the 45 edit…Full glorious version here (in particularly superb sound). I’ll leave the story of how this record was very weirdly linked to my first speeding ticket for some other day!)
“Rock On”–David Essex: Re-channeling the fifties was a very big part of the Naked Truth. Never better than on this record which made the fifties sound like they could have only happened in a glam-rock dream. I mean, it’s so fake it’s kinda….real.
“Rock the Boat”–The Hues Corporation (Fleming Williams, lead vocal, St. Clair Lee and H. Ann Kelly, harmony vocals): Lifted by the discos, which only proved the Naked Truth was getting around. Or maybe just that certain forms of perfection really are undeniable.
“Benny and the Jets”–Elton John: Star looks audience dead in the face and plays the me-looking-at-you-looking-at-me-looking-at-you game, sans cynicism or naivete.
“The Locomotion”–Grand Funk (Mark Farner, lead vocal; Don Brewer, Craig Frost, Todd Rundgren, harmony vocals): If you turn it up to eleven and listen all the way through, you might feel like you’ve just been bludgeoned to death with a ball peen hammer on the set of a bad seventies-era cop show. But if, for any number of reasons, you should find yourself in need of identifying the prime source for hair metal, this is as good a place to start as any.
“Hooked on a Feeling”–Blue Swede (Bjorn Skifs, lead vocal; harmony vocals? I dunno. A steam packet?): Ooh-ga-cha-ka, Ooh-ga-cha-ka, Ooh-ga, Ooh-ga, Ooh-ga-cha-ka. I think I had this in philosophy class in Junior College. I think it was part of a multiple choice test where all the options were this or “I Want Candy.” Aced that test! No, really, I’m sure I did.
“Waterloo”–Abba (Agnetha Faltskog, Anna-Frid Lyngstad, lead and harmony vocals; Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, harmony vocals): Couple of guys teamed up with their manager to write lines like “I was defeated, you won war” for their significant others to sing back to them in a song contest. Thus was Euro-pop born.
“Billy Don’t Be a Hero”–Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods (Sorry, couldn’t find any solid info on the lead or backing singers..Help, I need somebody!): Okay, so this was a little late to the Age of Viet Nam Protest. Let alone the age of Civil War Protest (to which it was supposedly referring). But you could argue Bo and the boys were really protesting the next war. Which might make it the most Naked Truth of all. (Note: This song was originally done by an English group, Paper Lace, who hit #1 about the same time with “The Night Chicago Died,” one of the strangest records ever made. I didn’t include it only because I found trying to formulate actual thoughts about it made me more than usually inclined to just give up a life of abstinence and become a drinking man.)
“Kung Fu Fighting”–Carl Douglas: “In fact it was a little bit frightening.” A little bit? Hey the Establishmentarians had to come up with punk rock to combat this stuff. It was clearly getting out of hand.
“Rock and Roll Heaven”–The Righteous Brothers: See what I mean? Necrophilia in the top five. Isn’t that just what the Velvet Underground was after all along?
Post (What Came After):
“The Proud One”–The Osmonds (Merrill Osmond, lead vocal; Donnie Osmond, Jay Osmond, Alan Osmond and Wayne Osmond, harmony vocals) : One last improbable shining moment for the brothers, courtesy of Bob Gaudio, Bob Crewe and harmonies only a shared womb can produce.
“It’s OK”–The Beach Boys (Mike Love, lead and harmony vocals; Dennis Wilson, second lead and harmony vocals; Carl Wilson, Brian Wilson, Marilyn Wilson, Al Jardine, harmony vocals): Really guys? It took you this long?
“Boogie Fever”–The Sylvers (Edmund Sylvers, lead vocal; Foster Sylvers, second lead; Olan Sylvers, Charmaigne Sylvers, J.J. Sylvers, Ricky Sylvers, Angie Sylvers, Pat Sylvers, harmony vocals): You know how you can tell if something fits the Aesthetic? When the lead singer can sing a line like “You know she ate a pizza, dancing to the beat,” with the purest conviction.
(The Aesthetic now brimmed with such confidence that teen idols even came in…plaid. This may have been hubris.)
“More, More, More”–The Andrea True Connection (Andrea True, lead vocal): Abba. Blue Swede. Then this. What was it with the Swedes and the Aesthetic. Even their porn stars got into the act. They’re obviously a strange people.
“That’s Rock and Roll” and “Hey Deanie”–Shaun Cassidy: The last blast of the teen-pop ethos kick-started by the Cowsills. Shortly after, the switch flipped. I think it had something to do with Reagan being elected and the end of politics. But it’s possible I’m paranoid.
“New York Groove”–Ace Frehley: Hey, KISS didn’t miss by much, themselves. KISS’s guitarist cashing in on disco by calling on the spirit of the Sun God? That goes straight to the heart of the matter. (Worth visiting this update here…In case you’re wondering what a recording studio can do for a fella. To be fair this is the very first time I’ve ever paid the least attention to the words.)
“You’re the One That I Want”–Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta: Suzy Creamcheese and Boy Toy smoke themselves, each other, the charts, whatever else happens to be standing near.
“B-A-B-Y,”“Shadows of the Night”–Rachel Sweet: The link between Carla Thomas and Britney Spears (there had to be one, didn’t there?) and teen-rock’s great lost voice. (Pat Benetar having the hit with “Shadows of the Night” was one of the seven signs of the Apocalypse. And, yes, I know which one, but I’m not allowed to tell.)
“Mickey”–Toni Basil: Ode to a Boy, Volume I (subsequent volumes….pending). “I Want Candy” from the other side of the fence (even further than Bow Wow Wow’s actual remake of “I Want Candy,” if only because it was a natural smash.)
“Uptown”–Prince: The Sun God’s natural heir and an all but official sequel to “Sweet Cherry Wine.” (Sorry, couldn’t find a useful link.)
“Jessie’s Girl”–Rick Springfield: The greatest record ever made by a soap opera star. And one of the greatest records ever made by anybody about that strange place called L.A. At least in the sense that, despite it’s universal lyric theme, it’s sense of helpless, plasticized doom couldn’t possibly have been conceived anywhere else at the time. These days, plasticized doom being such common coin of the realm, it couldn’t be conceived anywhere at all. Strange, that. Has all the markings of a Security State plot. I’d investigate further but, hey, I don’t want to end up like this guy.
“Jump”–Van Halen (David Lee Roth, lead vocal): Somebody once described “Dance the Night Away” (perfectly) as “the Archies meet the Rolling Stones.” For this one, they ditched the Stones.
(Dressed for success…in a Beatles’ t-shirt. “This is the end. My only friend, the end.”)
“Dressed for Success”–Roxette (Marie Fredriksson, lead and harmony vocal; Per Gessle, harmony vocal): If somebody asked me for one record to define the eighties, you know, the end of Politics in the West, this would be it. The Swedes again. Is anyone surprised? But, hey, at least the end sounded wonderful. It had a good beat and you could dance to it.
“Rhythm of the Night”–Debarge (El DeBarge, lead vocal; Bunny DeBarge, Randy DeBarge, Mark DeBarge, James DeBarge, harmony vocals): Light as a feather and God love ’em. You start with the J5 (or, if you like, Little Peggy March) and by the time you get to here, the Naked Truth is virtually….indistinguishable…from…anything….else. Catchy at least.
“TLC”–Linear (Charlie Pennachio, lead vocal; Wyatt Pauley, Joey Restivo, Trevor Anthony and Billy Griffin, harmony vocals ): The new paradigm. Hip-hop style, rock image, Aesthetic vocals, catchy marketing (“Latin Freestyle”). It never quite took hold. This, in fact, was as far as it got Aesthetically speaking. Too bad….But if there could only be one, at least it was perfect.
“MMMBop”–Hanson (Taylor Hanson, lead and harmony vocals; Isaac Hanson, Zac Hanson, harmony vocals): The most exciting teen-and-under vocalist since Michael Jackson. And, after this fell from #1, there was absolutely nowhere for him to go. Need some semblance of a culture for that particular sort of career development, so goodbye to all that. Singing I mean. Teen-pop lives on, of course. Heck, it rules. But it’s the (mostly white) quasi-hip-hop version now. And hip-hop, quasi- or otherwise, belongs to suits and producers, not singers. After this, the men in charge finally figured out a way for teen-pop to permanently be both crust and filling, instead of the cherry on top.
A Family Band: The Cowsills Story
Louise Palanker and Bill Filipiak, directors (2010)
[SMALL ANNOUNCEMENT: I haven’t updated my Rock and Roll Cinema category for a couple of years. Along the way, I decided it would be better the call this category Rock and Roll Screenings, so I can write about television or other video formats under the same umbrella…not saying I will…just saying it’s….possible.]
[NOTE: H-m-m-m-m…The Jackson 5, Julie Brown, Tommy James and now, finally, my long-promised review of the Cowsills’ documentary. It must be “Naked Truth Week” at The Round Place In the Middle. I’ll have one more post in the next few days tying it all up. For now…]
[2nd NOTE: Oh wait….Previous thoughts on/links to all things Cowsill here. I especially recommend that newcomers search for the Playboy After Dark clip, which I’m pretty sure is the only clip I’ve ever posted twice. Okay, on with the show…]
Rock and roll certainly gets in the blood.
Take Louise Palanker, who apparently decided to spend a decade or so chasing down the story of the Cowsills and putting it on film.
On the surface, that is a strange obsession–and it becomes a little stranger when you watch the result and realize that, while its self-deprecating tone might win a few converts, it is not especially aimed at doing so. If you come to this film thinking, as one (admittedly deeply misguided) reviewer put it, that the Cowsills were the most meretricious band of the sixties, then there’s not much chance this film will change your mind.
It might stick with you, though, even then.
Not that I was among those who needed convincing–I loved “Indian Lake” the first time I heard it on a crappy sounding TV-special oldies’ collection back in the late seventies, and, a thousand spins later, hearing Billy Cowsill moan about being forced to record “this piece of shit” doesn’t diminish my love one bit!–but this particular labor of love has certainly stuck with me.
The claims for the Cowsills’ “importance”–that overused, very sixties-style word–are, I think, a good deal more significant than the film acknowledges…or maybe just has time for.
They pretty much invented a certain approach to teen-pop–both as music (thanks to the inordinate talent of the kids) and marketing (thanks to the inordinate obstinance of their horribly abusive father)–which took a deep hold in American life at the very moment their own band (and family) were disintegrating. That approach, carried on by so many others, has never really gone out of style since.
Several commenters in the film espouse (without contradiction) the view that the Cowsills’ stopped having hits because their time had basically passed. I’d argue that, by the time the events recalled elsewhere in the film had wrecked their career, their true moment had finally come. One semi-tragic element of their story (mostly unexplored here)–is that they weren’t allowed to participate in the mini-Pop Explosion they made possible.
So what’s not in the film is this: Within six months of their last major hit–1969’s “Hair” (brilliantly produced by Bill and Bob, the great story of how they got it released against their record company’s wishes is both fully told in the film and well worth remembering if you’re under any illusion that the barriers to the Cowsills transitioning to adult stardom were any way musical)–falling from the charts, the next family of talented kids waiting in the wings entered those charts for the first time.
That was the Jackson 5.
Starting in January of 1970, the Jackson, Osmond and Cassidy (aka “Partridge,” for whom the Cowsills were the very direct inspiration) families spent eighteen of the next fifty-four weeks at #1 on the Billboard pop chart. Those other families–real and imagined–maintained a semi-iconic cultural presence for decades to come, and, of course, produced the biggest pop star of the post-Beatles era.
Meanwhile, The Cowsills themselves–pioneers of the concept and (excepting Michael Jackson) likely the most talented of the bunch–entered the oblivion zone.
Whatever the reasons, the market for families of cute kids with teen idol looks drying up wasn’t one of them.
Semi-tragic, as I mentioned. Quite possibly a great movie there.
But, as I also mentioned, that isn’t the tale Palanker and the Cowsills chose to tell.
So I guess the very fair question going in, is “Do they have another tale worth telling?”
You bet they do.
For the surviving Cowsill children, it’s pretty clear that, from this distance, making sense of their lives meant more than making sense of their career.
This the film does beautifully. Not by providing easy answers (or, in some cases, any answer) but by continually asking the right questions and giving us an up-close-and-personal view of the results.
The framework has Bob Cowsill, the band’s putative leader since their father kicked brother Billy out in the immediate aftermath of “Hair,” going back and interviewing various record men and family members. The parents, Bud and Barbara Cowsill, were both deceased by the time filming began, but there are several aunts available and their responses are, by turns, frustrating, poignant and infuriating. “I spanked my own kids,” one of Bud’s sisters says.
It’s not clear that she grasps the long difference between spanking your kids and doing what Bud Cowsill did.
What he did in the beginning was manage his own kids’ musical career well enough to get them on the national stage with a family-oriented pop image that was far removed from the garage band ethos the older boys wanted to pursue. What he did in the end was wreck every single opportunity he made–multiple lucrative recording contracts, an unprecedented ten-show contract with the Ed Sullivan Show, a chance to be participants in (or at least compensated inspiration for) the Partridge Family TV show–by his boorish, paranoid, ultimately incompetent personal and managerial behavior.
What he also did, from beginning to end, was relentlessly mete out virtually every form of physical and psychological abuse known to fatherhood.
The damage shows. Bill, Barry and Richard (the only sibling not allowed in the band–dad’s decision again and, according to Bill, not a good one) all struggled with various addictions and have passed away since filming began (Bill and Barry before the film was finished, though, fortunately, both were interviewed extensively).
For the rest, there was a troubled but ultimately inspirational (in the best sense) journey of individual and collective discovery.
It’s that journey Palanker chose to focus on and one of the film’s great strengths is that–through some really skillful editing (and given how long this project took, and how small its budget must have been, I mean really skillful–this thing flows)–the basics of the musical story manage to rest easily inside the family’s tortured narrative. Bob Cowsill is a genial presence, gently probing his relatives and other principals (like the band’s first producer, Artie Kornfeld, and Partridge mom, Shirley Jones, both genial presences themselves and a welcome relief from the often grim family drama), without becoming abrasive or judgmental.
The film benefits enormously, too, from the simple fact that the charisma of the first “first family of pop”–that is, the elements, beyond their considerable talent, that made them stars–still comes through: Bill’s ferocity, Barry’s sly wit, Susan’s spunk, even John’s essentially laid-back little-brotherness (to which I can relate). It’s not hard to see why they made it big–and it’s easy to lament what might have been even if they’ve understandably grown long-ago-and-far-away philosophical about the whole thing themselves.
I’m not sure there’s anything here that a victim of an abusive parent would call revelatory, but that’s part of the point. It’s a too-common family story told uncommonly well. If I have a quibble with the film, besides perhaps selling their historical significance a little short, it’s a relative paucity of music clips–I assume that was a rights issue, but the Cowsills were often superb on period television and I thought there were a few places where a well placed video could have added to the impact of the familial story as well as beef up the musical one.
There’s always YouTube, though (see below), and, in any case, this particular lack is more than made up for on DVD by the inclusion of a second disc of truly extraordinary “extras.” There’s a great musical tribute to Barry (who died in Hurricane Katrina, and which should be included in the links above), and several excellent full-length interviews that were edited for clips in the film.
Most of all, there’s a long clip with Barry and Richard–the son who was sent to Viet Nam instead of the Ed Sullivan Show–riding around in a darkened van, reminiscing, coping, fending off demons. At some point Richard takes over with a monologue about his experiences that beats every “Viet Nam” movie ever made as a primer on the enduring damage done to the national soul.
In the end, Palanker, Bill Filipiak and their team, plus the Cowsills themselves, made a fine film against what I take to be next-to-impossible odds.
The end product is rather like the Cowsills themselves.
Not perfect, just vital.
Oh, and about that musical thing (not from the film, but it could have been…and, if you’ve been here before, you know how I feel about singers):
(Bob Crewe, left, with Frankie Valli in the recording studio. Bob Gaudio, Crewe’s frequent Four Seasons’ writing partner with the beard in the background, circa 1960s)
If the particular style of writer/producer who emerged in the late fifties/early sixties were to be judged only by the quality and importance of the records he made (as opposed to the will and ability to self-mythologize), Bob Crewe would be as well known and respected as Phil Spector.
Alas, he never managed to lock his wife in the house for five years and make her watch Citizen Kane every night or, better yet, commit a murder, so Crewe’s death this week at age 83 did not elicit the kind of front-page headlines Spector’s will when he shuffles off this mortal coil.
That’s a shame, because as a record man and talent scout–as the things that should matter–he was pretty much Spector’s equal.
Whatever modern notoriety Crewe had attained at the time of his passing was by virtue of being a minor–if flamboyant–character in Jersey Boys, the story of the Four Seasons that was lifted off the ground a decade back by beat cops and waitresses, unused to having what they cared about celebrated, who took to paying Broadway prices to see it ten and twenty times and has been running ever since. Evidently in real life, Crewe–besides being adult, urbane and sane (Mortal Sins all, in the eyes of the crit-illuminati)–was actually pretty discreet about being a gay man in a macho industry. Discreet enough that I certainly have no idea how he felt about being so often criminally ignored. (And I know I sound like a broken record, but, no, he isn’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)
Perhaps he felt the records themselves were the best revenge.
I perhaps owe him a special debt. The Four Seasons were my way into rock and roll and it takes nothing away from their own genius to admit they wouldn’t have been anybody’s way into anything without him.
And they were only a small part of his achievement, which–as writer, producer, or both, covered everything below and much, much more. Phil Spector need not be ashamed that he didn’t best Crewe’s achievements.
As writer (warning, the second one might make your head explode):
As writer and producer:
And his signature achievement…as co-writer and producer…As I like to say…Hey, Time? You think you caught Bob Crewe?….Catch this:
Hope freedom’s ringing wherever you are man, because you sure left a lot of it here.
(NOTE: Regarding the link in the text above, I’m always looking to add lifetime memberships to the Dead Brain Cell Count Brigade. Anyone who prefers the Tremeloes to the Four Seasons certainly qualifies. Welcome Kathy Shaidle!)
I love Little Steven Van Zandt’s Underground Garage radio show, especially when I catch it in the car.
It’s got three basic things going for it. The first is the host’s personality (key to any successful radio show). Second is the chance to hear music I would never hear anywwhere else and make judgments on it. Third, and most significant for me, is the chance to hear familiar music re-contextualized. At its best, the show does what modern radio so seldom does–hooks you.
The one small fly in the sea of ointment is Van Zandt’s occasional tendency to indulge a bit of uber-hipness, which, oddly, cuts against the grain of the whole enterprise (he’s not, for instance, afraid of praising the Monkees or Herman’s Hermits).
This week, driving home on a Saturday night, I heard one of those re-makes which was sufficiently different from the original that I couldn’t place it until I heard the chorus.
Turned out to be some obviously punk-ish version of “Yo-Yo” (which I have posted in the past and can be viewed again here), a hit for the Osmonds in their brief run of genius before some idiot induced them away from Memphis’ American Studios, songs like “Yo-Yo,” and any chance of being real long-term competition for the Jackson 5 (an idea that isn’t nearly as heretical as some might assume–the American period was the only time the Osmonds had a similar level of musical support to what the Jacksons got at Motown, and while the difference between the two groups vocally was real, in the words of John T. Chance, I wouldn’t want to live on the difference).
Anyway, when the deliberately off-key remake was followed by Deep Purple’s hit version of “Hush,” I thought maybe there was some kind of Joe South tribute going on (he wrote both songs).
Turned out that wasn’t the case, though when Steven came back on the mike he did mention that South wrote both songs and remarked on the oddity of the same man writing a big hit for both the Osmonds and Deep Purple in the same era. Unfortunately, that was only after he had claimed the “Yo-Yo” remake (by the Doughboys as it turned out) had made the song “kinda cool.”
Which I heard with a touch of bemusement because my first thought when I realized the song was actually “Yo-Yo” was along the lines of “Too bad Steven didn’t have the stones to play the Osmonds.”
I had that thought because the Osmonds’ version smokes the Doughboys seven ways from Sunday.
And it would have taken some moxy for Little Steven to admit as much, right there in the Underground Garage.
I rented Hemingway and Gellhorn, popped it in the DVD player, negotiated my way past the menu and immediately found myself staring into the age-and-war-and-Dachau-witnessing-ravaged face and listening to the tobacco-stained-and-whiskey-soaked voice of Martha Gellhorn, one of the twentieth century’s greatest journalists and war correspondents, looking back on her glorious youth. Gellhorn herself having been dead for a while when this was made (and me actually having no idea whatsoever of how she really looked or sounded), I spent the first thirty seconds or so wondering who this terrific actress was they got to not so much “play” as embody Gellhorn in old age.
Then there was a certain flicker of the eyes or tilt of the head that hinted it might actually be the woman whose name was over the credits.
Viewing this very, very good film (or “miniseries” or “TV movie” or “event” or whatever it’s supposed to be called if it ran on HBO), I was never quite able to recover from that initial shock. I’m a fan of Kidman’s. She was the main reason I wanted to see this, and, of course, she’s been truly fantastic here and there over the years. And she’s quite good in this, too, playing–but not quite embodying–Gellhorn in the days before age, war, Dachau and Ernest Hemingway (Clive Owen, first rate as usual) took their toll.
But what she achieves here as the older, backward-looking-but-always-forward-moving Gellhorn really begs the question of why she’s been so hellishly obsessed with losing her looks and having all that useless plastic surgery that’s done nothing but make her a punch line. My God, woman, if you can act like that you’ll work forever–and you’ll be remembered forever! Let the other stuff go. I beg you.
YouTube Dynamite: The Cowsills at the Playboy Mansion (1970).
For those who don’t know (or remember), the Cowsills were the family band who essentially invented the brand of Teen Pop that–from the J5 and the Osmonds (who were breaking wide open as this played originally in May, 1970, on Hugh Hefner’s short-lived music show Playboy After Dark) to whoever is set to replace Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus tomorrow–has periodically ruled the world ever since.
They had a run of late-sixties’ hits themselves but were ultimately cheated out of their truly just reward when the television producers who had directly modeled The Partridge Family after them wanted some–but not all–of them for the cast and they refused to participate. At which point an industry already heavily aligned against them because of the actions of their abusive, alcoholic, manager-father, whose belligerence had, among other things, previously cost them a record setting ten-show contract with The Ed Sullivan Show, rapidly turned its back.
Within two years of the video linked below they had disbanded, as both a musical group and a family unit. The family unit and the musical group both reformed in later years–tentatively at first, but these days they’ve become a permanent fixture on the oldies circuit. There has been a new birth of critical respect after retro-genres like “Sunshine Pop” came into vogue and more has become known about the brothers’ considerable writing and playing abilities. Evidently, many of the personal wounds have healed as well.
But the saddest words of tongue and pen are still “it might have been,” and what I see in the video below is a Teen Pop act that never would have needed to take a back seat to any of their heirs if talent had been all that mattered.
If you don’t already know, it probably won’t be hard to guess from watching the video which two of the children the producers wanted in particular.
That would be Susan Cowsill, then a week short of her eleventh birthday, who first charms a room full of Playboy Bunnies and then makes them utterly disappear (not least when they are milling about in front of her, blocking the damn view! get out of the way people, we wanna see the ten-year-old! don’t you know talent always wins!), dancing beside her brother Barry–the other one the producers were ready to cast.
Great as Barry’s vocal is here on what was probably their best song (“II x II”–the second song in the sequence), he was even better on his instrument. The epic bass guitar on “Indian Lake” and “Hair,” two of their biggest hits, which most people probably assume were played by the sort of crack session men who have backed every single other Teen Pop act from then to now, were his (both records were produced–superbly–by his brother Bill, who had subsequently been kicked out of the band by their father in a crowning act of genius!).
Those landmarks–as indelible as any bass lines in the rock and roll era, which means as indelible as any in the history of bass lines–were well in Barry’s past when he stepped to the mike on this particular night, four months short of his sixteenth birthday.
The Cowsills “Where Is Love,” “II X II” and “Poor Baby”(Live at the Playboy Mansion)
Susan Cowsill has long since become one of the country’s best singer-songwriters and has lived a genuinely epic American life which I’m just beginning to learn about in depth and which I’ll get to more of in the coming days or weeks.
Barry Cowsill disappeared during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. His body washed up in the Mississippi River four months afterwards and was finally identified a week later.
Believe it or not, some people made fun of me back then when I said it was a musical, as well as human, tragedy.
You can listen to Susan’s tribute to Barry below–singing one of his songs, with her surviving brothers on backing vocals (plus Jackson Browne and the Bangles’ Vicki Peterson)–and judge for yourself:
Susan Cowsill “River of Love” (Studio Recording with Video Clip)
NOTE: I’ve got the recent acclaimed documentary about the band on its way and I’ll almost certainly have more thoughts on them (and more links–to Susan’s story for sure) after I have a chance to watch the whole thing.
But that first video above has been my YouTube crack for this week. And, hey, if you don’t cry (or smile) for anything else, you can at least cry (or smile) for an age when Hugh Hefner still had taste in women! Still can’t figure out if he ruined us or we ruined him in the long fall since. The corny jokes here provide no clue to the enduring mystery…
In 1981 I was majoring in English at Florida State and living in a studio apartment a block off campus.
The apartment complex had a couple of notable features beyond cheap rent and a location that allowed an easy walk to class.
The first feature was the roaches–legendary in college apartments to be sure, but this place had gone a little above and beyond the call. It attracted a particularly high class of survivor-roach and it attracted them in even greater than usual numbers. There were some occasions when my college budget (which had taken every penny I earned working for my dad between the ages of nine and seventeen in the first two months back in the fall of 1980 and was now being abetted by a job as a courier for a real estate company) could cover roach-traps.
Alas, these traps usually filled up within a day or two and my budget allowed for a replacement somewhere along the lines of once a quarter.
The upshot was that, when I was in college, I became very proficient at killing cockroaches with my bare hands. My roaches being of the gone-into-a-crack-less-than-one-second-after-the-light-comes-on variety rather than the don’t-worry-I’ll-just-waddle-along-the-open-floor-here-while-you-get-the-fly-swatter variety, it was either that…or let them go.
After about six months I had developed a deep aversion to letting the little so-and-so’s escape.
If I woke up in the morning and there were, say, half-a-dozen in the kitchen sink, I could forgive myself if one got away. Killing six roaches in less than a second–with your bare hands and within a minute of waking up–is no small feat even when you are young and strong. If there were less than six, however, and one slipped off, I usually entered a state of semi-catatonic depression which was likely to last until I got a chance to wipe out the next brigade.
That was one feature of the Jefferson Arms on Jefferson Street, a long block from the building where I plied my major.
The other feature involved the hot and cold water handles on the sink faucet in the bathroom.
They turned opposite ways.
Let me just tell you that having faucet handles which are not synchronized is a much quicker path to contemplation of suicide than sharing a place with endless legions of German cockroaches.
I mean it might not have been so bad, except that the entire water service shut off so frequently. This meant that about once a month or so you would be using this particular sink–and almost certainly have both faucets wide open to make up for the lack of water pressure–and then have to guess which way the countervailing handles were supposed to turn when the water suddenly stopped flowing.
Now, is it the right side that turns clockwise or the left?
Somehow, I could never bring myself to write it down. Pride I guess. Or fear that if I acknowledged my low state of affairs in this clinical, unromantic, way it might lead directly to the situation becoming permanent–not an irrational thought for those of us who turned to English-majoring in college because we had no plan for life beyond it!
Often as not, then, old habits asserted themselves and you just absent-mindedly turned the faucets the way they were supposed to go.
Which meant you better be there when the water came back on, because if you weren’t, you were the one responsible for the complex’s monthly flood.
One day in 1981, I was the one responsible.
I can tell you generally how it happened.
I was in a hot hurry to get to work.
Whether the specific cause of my hurry on this particular day was just the usual tight schedule (stiff walk from class, grab a baloney sandwich, run to the Maverick, get to work on time!) or a Hayley Mills movie on one of Ted Turner’s cable stations (I swear no other living creature could make me late for work…and I don’t mean Ted Turner!) I do not recall.
Suffice it to say that when I did get back from work that evening there was a note on my door to see the management–and a very wet apartment.
Evidently, mine was one of the worse floods.
I was on the ground floor and my next door neighbor wasn’t home either, so the water had to get all the way out the front door before anyone noticed.
Management was lenient. I had been drenched from above on two previous occasions and my prompt reporting (of course I was home when it was somebody else’s apartment!) had prevented some real damage (the truly dreaded kind that might have made re-threading the faucet handles cost-effective or something).
My next door neighbor was sweet about the whole thing. We agreed on seventy-five dollars for damages and I was only a couple of days late paying her off.
Her cocker spaniel had been frightened out of his wits but was otherwise unharmed.
So the only lasting effect of the flood I was responsible for was on my record collection.
* * * *
In those days–five years into my habit–I could fit all my vinyl LPs in a single double-shelf case my father had custom built for me.
I still have the case, which was built to hold between two hundred and two hundred and fifty LPs (depending on how many doubles were included)
Despite sitting on the floor, it emerged unscathed.
So unscathed I can no longer pick it out from its thirteen matching companions, all of which I built myself as the years and the records accumulated.
These days, the cases are all full.
Back then, thankfully, the flood only reached the bottom shelf of that one case–and there were probably less than dozen records down there.
Over the years, I replaced a few, simply because the jackets became too warped and moldy (though, oddly, never the records–it was as if they were charmed somehow).
Dusty Springfield’s Golden Hits (replaced).
Diana Ross and the Supremes Greatest Hits (replaced–I was enough of a snob to have them filed under S, where they by God belonged!)
Tanya Tucker’s Greatest Hits on Columbia (replaced).
Some of the others–because they were too hard to find or simply weren’t damaged badly enough to warrant bothering with it–stayed on as permanent reminders.
The true survivors.
The Who’s Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy (survivor).
The Shangri-Las’ Golden Hits on Mercury (survivor).
….Joe South’s Greatest Hits (survivor).
* * * *
What strikes me now about that list is how important they all were–and are.
How much every purchase counted in those days of desperately low finance countered by an equal and opposite need to know what was hiding behind those cellophane wrappers in the record store.
How easy it was to listen to those albums all the way through every time I put them on.
That’s a heavy list up there. Filled with artists who either are or should be in whatever Hall of Fame exists for their kind of music.
I don’t say Joe South necessarily does or does not belong in any Halls except those he’s already in (Nashville Songwriters and Georgia Music)–though it’s easy to imagine him having earned such accolades already (say the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the national Songwriters Hall) if his brother’s suicide in the early seventies hadn’t taken the heart out of him.
But, based on the music he did get to make, he definitely belongs in that high company.
South made some great music as a sideman.
The rattlesnake guitar on Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools”–which sounds like a soundtrack of the entire sixties–is his, as is the heavy lifting on significant parts of Bob Dylan’s earth-shaking Blonde on Blonde.
He made some wonderful music as a producer (the hit run of the very under-rated Billy Joe Royal as well as Friend and Lover’s Devil’s Island classic “Reach Out in the Darkness,” among others).
God knows he made some truly great music as a songwriter and God knows that music traveled.
There aren’t too many writers who can claim to have written standards that crossed from swamp-rock (South’s own hits) to countrypolitan (Lynn Anderson’s “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden”) to teen-pop (the Osmonds’ “Yo-Yo”) to heavy metal (Deep Purple’s “Hush”) without sounding the least bit forced or scatter-shot.
South was one who could.
For all that, I still value him most as a singer because I still go back to how well that slightly moldy Greatest Hits album (which didn’t even include “Redneck”–one of his greatest songs and, given when and where it was recorded, likely his boldest) stood up in the elite company of my early record collection.
His versions of those great songs were always the equal of anyone who covered them, up to and including Elvis (who smoked “Walk A Mile In My Shoes” live) and Swamp Dogg (who recorded a version of “Redneck” which is my favorite South cover). This was despite the fact that South in no way possessed a classically great voice and in no way attempted the kind of obvious affectation we now associate with the Bob Dylan school of persona-management.
He was great because he had an extremely rare quality–the knack for just being. (And, hey, if the knack really was an affectation, it was sufficiently disguised in his case to amount to the same thing, which would make him rarer still.)
He was great because Rock and Roll used to demand that of people and he was one of those who lived up to the challenge.
He was great because he lived in angry times and he wasn’t afraid to take them on–as Dave Marsh and others have pointed out, it took real courage for a southern white man who had no intention of going anyplace else to start a hit song in the voice of an angry populist and end it by shouting “Furthermore, to hell with hate,” in the year that George Wallace was making a serious run at the presidency. I would only add that it also took a touch of genius to make this sound as natural as breathing.
And he was great because he lived in times like any other and he wasn’t afraid to acknowledge that either. There’s never going to be an age when “Don’t it Make You Want To Go Home” or “I Knew You When” or, heck, “Yo-Yo,” don’t speak to somebody’s life and so there’s never going to be a time when Joe South, who had his two biggest hits with protest records that were as rooted in the special circumstances of their time and place as any music could be (and turned out to be transcendent after all), won’t have a chance to sneak up on somebody and change their life, too.