Continuing with the in-depth presentation of my 20 favorite Vocal Albums. I’m up to #5 (And 1965, which is going to be a very big year for this concept):
Any list of competitors for the not-so-imaginary title of Greatest Rock and Roll Vocal Group doesn’t need your toes to count: The Everly Brothers, Beatles, Beach Boys, Mamas & Papas, Impressions, Spinners, Four Seasons. You can argue all day long about who’s #2.
There’s no argument about #1.
Close harmony might belong to one of the white groups (white musicians tend to prize order). But the Temptations, who were better than fine with close harmony, could do more of everything else and do it better while the Motown machine assured they would never lack for first rate material. If White America–well, the crit-illuminati anyway–hadn’t been so stuck on the auteur theory, developed for film but lying handy and transferable to anything, and been averse, consciously or subconsciously, to the idea that Black America could do more than dance and snap its fingers, the Tempts’ early albums (which I wrote about here) would have been treated as seriously as contemporary efforts by the Beatles, Stones and Beach Boys.
Since this was their tribute to Smokey Robinson, who may or may not have once been called America’s greatest living poet by Bob Dylan, but fit the bill in any case, it was the best material they ever got. Although the album was assembled from a putative hodgepodge–a hit from their debut album combined with material Smokey had written for himself, the Tempts and/or other acts–it coheres like a concept LP because Smokey was a conceptual artist and because this is the rare, possibly unique, “tribute” album where the subject of the tribute is producing it himself.
Call it their Rubber Soul….unless of course it makes more sense to call Rubber Soul, released nine months later, the Beatles’ natural answer to The Temptations Sing Smokey.
“The Way You Do the Things You Do”–Berry Gordy had been trying to break the Temptations (previously the Primes–the only better name change was the Primettes becoming the Supremes) for a while and finally gave them to his best friend with the instruction to “get some hits on these guys.” This was the breakout, with Smokey switching the emphasis from Paul Williams’ gravelly baritone to Eddie Kendricks’ ethereal tenor, and then using one of Marvin Tarplin’s indelible guitar lines and the Tempts’ own clever harmony arrangement (beefing up every other line in the verses, call and response alternating with close harmony in the chorus) to get Eddie within range of a Smokey Robinson lead. In the fifty-five years since, it’s never been off the radio.
“Baby, Baby I Need You”–One of the last sides recorded with original member Al Bryant just after Robinson took over the reins but before David Ruffin replaced Bryant. Did I mention they were just fine with close harmony? This is the closest the album gets to their doo wop roots and gorgeous.
“My Girl”–Smokey was determined to get a showcase for Ruffin. He got it. This is one of those records that’s now so deeply embedded in the culture it feels like it must have been breathed into being rather than composed but what’s really miraculous is how complicated the simple arrangement sounds. It fills the ear the way “I Get Around” fills the ear, but it’s devoid of spectacle, all nuance and shading. Well, maybe except for that opening guitar line (from Marvin Tarplin again).
“What Love Has Joined Together”–A straight remake of one of Smokey’s own hits with the Miracles. Not even Eddie Kendricks could match the purity of Smokey’s tenor, but he gets inside the song all the same and with the others answering in the background I’m sure no woman receiving the message was heard to complain.
“You’ll Lose a Precious Love”–Notable for David Ruffin using his tenor voice, bleeding into falsetto on the choruses. It was as beautiful as his rough baritone and hints at roads not taken. Tantalizing.
“It’s Growing”–Here, Ruffin, already firmly established, does something even Smokey couldn’t do, sliding from tenor to baritone to blue falsetto with miraculous ease, matching the movements to one of Robinson’s most trenchant lyrics. The group’s “Hey, hey, heys” would have stolen the moment from anyone else. Another hit.
“Who’s Lovin’ You”–Another remake of one of Smokey’s own hits. Here Ruffin, a Mississippi native who lived in the South until he was sixteen and whose family gospel group shared bills with the likes of Mahalia Jackson, shows why he could have cut it on the southern soul circuit. The others had all been born in the South, too, so they had no trouble keeping up. Gently, though. Gently. That’s the Smokey influence.
“What’s So Good About Goodbye”–Eddie takes on Smokey’s original again but this time the backing is stronger, more distinctive. If you can remove the memory of Robinson’s version (one of his most spectacular leads), this is beautiful on it’s own terms. The Tempts and their producer both knew how to play to their own strengths.
“You Beat Me to the Punch”–Paul Williams, the quiet man displaced by the spectacular Ruffin, accepts his assignment and gives it his special touch. The others were capable of reaching melancholy as required. Williams lived there, even on upbeat material like this, a hit for Mary Wells, who Smokey had already gotten a bunch of hits on.
“Way Over There”–Here Kendricks uses the rougher part of his voice to fine effect. The Tempts push hard, like a gospel group aiming for the charts. Good thing, because it took a might effort to get within ver-r-r-r-y close calling distance of Smokey’s original.
“You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me”–Poor Eddie. This was Smokey’s signature tune at the time, and the Beatles had done a superb cover. Everybody decided to take it easy, not to compete with the intensity the song had brought out of the lead singers in its two already famous versions. In context, though, it works, a setup for the close.
“(You Can) Depend On Me”–A coda, which nonetheless delivers. One of Smokey’s earliest efforts (so early Berry Gordy helped out with a co-write–a reminder that the Boss was no small genius as a music man), it floats where his original soared, but it’s a beautiful closer. Makes you want to start over…..Hey Marvin, what’s that guitar line again?
Note: The Temptations Sing Smokey, barely noticed by White America in 1965, spent 18 weeks at #1 on the newly instituted Billboard R&B album chart, a record that would not be surpassed until Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life spent 20 nonconsecutive weeks at #1 in 1976-77. Stevie’s record would stand (though tied by Rick James’ __ in 1981) until Michael Jackson’s Thriller arrived in 1983 and changed the game forever. Thriller struck deep, but new marketing techniques would soon allow LPs to spend a year or more at the top of the Pop or R&B album charts without leaving a mark on the culture crumbling around them. I don’t consider the inability/unwillingness to grant the final degree of creative license even to Smokey Robinson and the Temptations in their moment and the ensuing collapse the least bit coincidental. And throwing awards at those who survived to old age doesn’t make up for any of it.
Another of rock and soul’s many lessons for those who come after.
I’m a little late with this, which I meant to post in early August….Life intervened but here goes:
10) The Clash:Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978)
The album between The Clash and London Calling, the monuments upon which their legacy rests.
It’s not really lesser. It’s reputation suffered (though only a bit…you couldn’t say anything too bad about the Clash in 1978!) in the moment and afterward for a myriad of reasons that had nothing to do with the music. It was an early Purity test for the era’s new Lefty, anxious, as in every era, to wipe out the old Lefty. Hiring Blue Oyster Cult’s producer wasn’t exactly a hip move and it turned into a double bust when it didn’t break them on American radio.
But with all that long gone, how do you gainsay, “Safe European Home,” “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad,” “Stay Free?” It rocks and burns and stings and it’s of a piece, everything a master work should be. Confession: I’m sorry I haven’t listened to it more. I’d even say ashamed, except I don’t want to end up in any tribunals.
9) Ringo Starr:Photograph–The Very Best of (2007)
Ringo gets by on his solo records for the same reason he got by on Beatles’ records. You like the guy. And he played with great musicians, who must have liked him too. It might be that “It Don’t Come Easy” is the only great single he made, but several others (“Photograph,” “You’re Sixteen” for starters) come close and a lot of others get by on the sly. The Lucky One? Maybe, but it stands up to any similar length comp from any of his mates…and, not to coin a phrase, goes down easier.
8) Clarence Carter:Snatching It Back (1992)
I keep asking: Is there such a thing as a minor genius?
Not in my book. I’d no more want to be without this than a good Otis Redding package even if I know the difference and it’s hardly negligible.
What Clarence did was carve out a serio-comic niche that belonged to him and no one else. What other deep soul singer had his style defined by a chuckle?
It worked as more than novelty because, when he dug deep on a pure melodrama like “Patches” it was of a piece with his commitment, and when he went on the sly for “Slip Away,” his other signature song, it was right in line with his eye for the main chance (in the song, of course, but career-wise, too). And brother, there’s nothing in this world to compare with his version of “Dark End of the Street,” seemingly covered by every soul and country singer in the world and the most devastating, guilt-ridden tune in all of southern soul. He turned it into pure comedy. Of course he did. Until the very last line, when he took a single line from the real song and turned it into soul’s deepest, darkest statement about not getting out alive.
It’s only then that you understand why some people have to laugh to keep from falling apart.
7) Bruce Springsteen:Born to Run (1975)
My go-to Springsteen. Robert Christgau once wrote that Springsteen was “one of those rare self-conscious primitives who gets away with it”
I’m not going to beat that description though even Bruce only got away with it for so long. This both embodies and transcends all that, however, because the Boss was still young, still hoping to become the new Elvis, which was/is better than being the new Dylan and miles better than being the new Woody Guthrie, the ultra-sincere schtick he’s been riding for about two decades now everywhere except in his legendary concerts. I play this whenever I want to remind myself what the fuss was all about and it still delivers. In spades.
6) Buddy Holly: Memorial Collection (2008)
You could go crazy trying to keep up with all the Buddy Holly collections out there. This is a good one: sixty tracks, nice package, all the essentials. For when you want more than the still peerless 20 Golden Greats and less than the still essential big box that covers everything.
Still brimming with surprise and invention at any length. Except for Elvis and maybe Ray Charles, the other 50’s legends sound like they’re standing still by comparison.
5) Boz Scaggs:Silk Degrees (1976)
It’s easy to forget how big this was in the mid-seventies. It sold five million and yielded four hit singles (of which “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle” became radio staples). Rita Coolidge took the album closer “We’re All Alone” to the top ten.
And I must say it still sounds good. Crafty sure, but not quite slick. An earned success and career definer after his stint in the original Steve Miller Band and his “Loan Me a Dime” blues phase with Duane Allman. Turned out there was a reason people of that caliber wanted to work with him.
4) Jimmy Reed:The Anthology (2011)
Two long discs and you kind of have to be in the mood. Still, it’s amazing how much dexterity Reed got out of what had to be the most limited range any key blues man had either vocally, lyrically or instrumentally. Once you break through to a certain level of acceptance though, it quickly becomes addictive. I found myself wondering what microscopic change he would work next–and laughing out loud when he produced yet another small miracle. “Big Boss Man,” “Bright Lights, Big City,” “Baby What You Want Me to Do.” Imagining a world where his original versions could make the Top 40 is impossible now. If the historical record didn’t exist no one would believe it. Can’t wait until I’m in the mood again.
3) The Jackson 5:Anthology (1976)
The last of the old Motown triples on vinyl…and possibly the best. Considering the competition (Smokey and the Miracles, Supremes, Temptations, Marvin Gaye) that’s saying a mouthful. But this never quits and never even dips. There are no show-tunes or Vegas breaks, no finding their form in the early days (they broke out with “I Want You Back” for Christ’s sake), no late-career sag. Great moments from the always under-appreciated Jermaine and even Jackie in addition to you-know-who, who was still more victim than perpetrator at this point. I’ve always believed you can hear the difference. Worse for him. Better for us.
So it goes.
2) Earl Lewis and the Channels:New York’s Finest (1990)
Unless you’re a doo wop fanatic or at least a serious record collector you probably never heard of them and would therefore likely be shocked at how good they were. Their big one was “The Closer You Are” which does capture their essence, though it only hints at their depths. No period group had better or more arresting arrangements and aren’t arresting arrangements the reason you listen to doo wop?
Besides being transported I mean.
1) The Chi-Lites:Greatest Hits (1972)
I went to sleep to this for a couple of weeks even though it meant sleeping in my bedroom where the record player is. (I don’t mean it put me to sleep–that would be a whole different thing. I rarely sleep in a bed because it gives me a stiff back.)
An essential 70’s album. No record collection should be without it (and no CD collection has come close). At this distance, it’s also one of the saddest records I know. Eugene Record’s vision of assimilation has since vanished from the culture, to be replaced by “diversity” which is always code for running back to the tribes, doubtless in hopes that one’s own tribe will one day triumph.
I wonder if we could still refute the coming collapse if we really wanted to.
And I wonder if we really want to.
Maybe putting them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where they belong, would be a start.
The Definitive Collection
Diana Ross & the Supremes (2008)
Let’s start with this: The Supremes, in their various incarnations, have thirty-one comps listed on Wikipedia. I doubt that’s all of them, but it’s enough to suggest there is probably no such thing as a “definitive” Supremes collection. I have four, including the four-disc CD box, which stretches from the very beginning (when it wasn’t clear whether Diana Ross or Flo Ballard would be the lead singer) to the very end (by which time Mary Wilson had, for years, been the only remaining original Supreme and Ballard was in the boneyard). It sustains.
But for getting to the essence, it’s hard to beat this one–and the essence is as essential as anything in the rock and roll era.
In the 173 weeks preceding the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand” reaching #1, (Oct. 3, 1961 to Feb 1, 1964) the top of the American pop charts looked like this:**
Weeks Total: 173
Weeks Black Artists spent at #1: 53
Weeks Motown artists spent at #1: 4
In the same length of time after (Feb. 1, 1964 to June 3, 1967):
Weeks Total: 173
Weeks Black Artists spent at #1: 32
Weeks Motown artists spent at #1: 26
Weeks the Supremes spent at #1: 19
Short summary: In the middle of what is supposed to have been Rock and Roll America’s most expansive period, absent Motown (meaning absent Berry Gordy, Jr.), Black America’s time at the top of the Pop Chart would have reverted to the pre-Elvis standard.
Without the Supremes, even Motown would have made little difference in this respect (something Berry Gordy understood better than anyone).
This was after a period–supposedly rock’s most limited and fallow–when Black America had sustained enough chart action over the entirety of the early Rock ‘n’ Roll era for both Cashbox and Billboard to experiment with ending the R&B (or “race”) chart–an experiment a year’s worth of the British Invasion ended for good. So much “for good” that recent years when White America dominated the Hip Hop chart–including one year (2013) where white acts occupied the top spot forty-four out of fifty-two weeks–have not revived the concept.
“Race” dies hard.
If the Supremes had not existed–had not been what and who they were–the shape of the dream that is receding behind us, the restoration of which will be the bedrock of any future revival of anything worth either living or dying for, would be a great deal smaller and meaner.
I listen to them hard and often. Always have. Always will.
Lately, when I listen, I listen to this–because I hear the perfect shape of something America responded to like no other version of ourselves that existed in their time. Hit play:
“Where Did Our Love Go”–By the time they broke out, in the summer of ’64, it was Diana Ross’s show. But the other key elements were already in place. The neighborhood harmonies, the pounding rhythm, Holland-Dozier-Holland’s gift for tying memorable melodies to stringent-but-far-from-simple lyrics that turn on the subtleties of Ross’s timbre: “I’ve got this burnin, burnin, yearnin’ feeling inside me” had never been followed quite so smoothly and irresistibly by anything as turned-on-its-head as “Ooooohhhh, deep inside me….and it hurts so bad.”
“Baby Love”–In true Motown style, the hit formula was copied closely on the subsequent release. Unlike all the other hit formulas, this went straight to #1 again. (Nice story, which I’ll paraphrase: Years ago, I heard all three members of HDH interviewed on public radio. One of them told a story about hanging out on the porch at Motown’s Hitsville after a long, not especially fruitful day of songwriting. He happened to overhear Gordy telling someone that, after the years-in-coming success of “Where Did Our Love Go,” he was going to put all the company’s promotional muscle behind the Supremes because they were the ticket to the white mainstream he had been seeking. Back inside, the eavesdropper went to the room where he had been working with the others, locked the door, hooked a chair under the knob, told his partners what he had heard, and said “We’re not leaving here until we write three number one hits for the Supremes.” “Baby Love” was the first.
“Come See About Me”–This, a fair bid for their finest hour, was the second. And #1 again. However great it was in conception, it grew by leaps and bounds when Ross got hold of it. There’s no question in your mind that he’ll come see about her. Who wouldn’t! Hers is the only mind filled with doubt.
“Stop! In the Name of Love”–This, a fair bid for their finest hour, was the third. And #1 again. Their signature stage song–Rock and Roll America produced nothing more iconic than their hand-motion choreography for this one and Rosanna Arquette fit a lost world into her five-second imitation in Baby It’s You–and for the first time James Jamerson’s bass emerged from the mix so powerfully that it became its own voice, counterpointing Ross’s desperate lead with a sound that seems to lead her down a path where hope and fear are forks in a road with no signs. To listen close is to be forever lost on that road….where you can never know if the path taken is right or wrong, no matter how many times it put a smile on your face when you were just singing along with the radio.
“Back in My Arms Again”–And, just like that, they were personalities. “And Flo, she don’t know, ’cause the boy she loves is a Romeo!”…And #1 again.
“Nothing but Heartaches”–A brilliant record, featuring some of the most haunting and complex harmonies found on any Motown record, plus the usual sterling qualities all the way around….and a flop! After five straight #1’s, this only got to #11. Not sure oldies radio ever made a distinction–but the Corporation noticed.
“I Hear a Symphony”–And went back to basics. The beat’s BIG again (especially that bass!), the harmonic lines cleaned up and deepened, the booting sax from ’64 restored to the bridge. Plus a lyric that’s a straightforward Ode to Joy. Back to #1!
“My World Is Empty Without You”–The lyric complexity returns. Is she pleading for forgiveness, extending it, or admitting she doesn’t care? The track retains the back-to-basics feel. The chart split the difference. It peaked at #5.
“Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart”–A fair bid for the sexiest vocal ever recorded. I don’t think it’s her heart that’s itching. Deeper than you might think, even so. The charts noticed (else fatigue was setting in)–this, as great and joyous as anything, settled for #9.
“You Can’t Hurry Love”–No way to stop this one, even if it plays like a sequel to “Love is Like an Itching in My Heart”–straight-up itching traded for Mama’s advice. By itself, that might have thrown the radio audience, but it was #1 by the time the bass intro reached the third note.
“You Keep Me Hangin’ On”–A shock. Still. Decades of radio play could never wear it smooth. The track itself was so compelling that Kim Wilde’s note-for-note copy went #1 two decades later…and was promptly forgotten. What neither Wilde nor anyone else could match was Ross’s combination of intimacy and distance–as if she’s finally grown terrified of a version of herself it would cost her life to reject. And across those same decades, seven thousand white boy critics echoed each other with some version of “Why doesn’t this weak women just leave the bastard?” Gee, all that liberation theology, all those leftover groupies, and they still never heard about the thing called Sex. #1 of course.
“The Happening”–Okay, here’s why there will never be a perfect Supremes comp. It’s another #1 (and therefore can’t be left off) and a good enough record that I could imagine it gracing a run of hits by someone else and not interrupting the flow. But this is the Supremes. And it’s only 1967. The quality doesn’t matter. It will just never fit. (Click the link, though. It’s the Sullivan appearance where Ed forgot the name and just introduced them as….”the girls!” Plus, they could dance. In case anyone forgot.)
“Reflections”–The themes reach culmination–loneliness, despair, the Morse Code of heartache, reflection. My pick for their greatest record, and Motown’s. It’s given extra weight by being so close to Flo Ballard’s last gasp (she would last only another six weeks before being fired). Somehow, this most perfect intimation of its time and place only reached #2. And that after even “The Happening” had gone to the top. One of life’s little mysteries. It’ll be worth every step of the hard road that ends with both feet inside the pearly gates to have that one explained.
“Love Child”–With Ballard gone, Mary Wilson was frozen out of the studio and backing vocals were turned over to the thoroughly professional Andantes. Three fantastic singles followed “Reflections” (to diminishing chart returns–with Ballard gone, they fell from the Top Ten like a stone). I feel their loss. But hearing “Reflections”bleed into this one elevates both. Which in the abstract, I wouldn’t believe was possible. And back to #1.
“I’m Livin’ in Shame”–A “Love Child” sequel and nearly as good. Standing on it’s own, it can slide by you and you can hear why it only reached the Top Ten. But placed here–and knowing the end is near–it gains weight, as the kitchen-sink details that lay hidden between the grooves of its predecessor are filled in and turned into pure loss. “She never got out of the house, never even boarded a train.” It’s all in the voice–Ross’s sly ability to shift between Ghetto Child and Worldly Sophisticate Looking Over Her Shoulder without losing the plot–and no record caught Black America’s then emerging, still unresolved, cultural dilemma better.
**NOTE: I chose the period of 173 weeks based on Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” marking a new era for Black America in terms of reclaiming the charts….The other non-Motown acts who reached number one between the arrival of the Beatles and the week “Respect” topped the chart were Louis Armstrong, the Dixie Cups and Percy Sledge. I wrote about the significance of Percy’s record here.
I missed China Beach the first time around. Then I waited for years for it to be released to DVD while the rights to the numerous music clips were worked out.
Then I waited some more until I could afford it.
When I finally got it (in 2014, I think), I watched the first two episodes and thought: This will need a binge.
Then I thought: That binge will need a certain mood.
I found the mood this week, God knows why. And I was sailing along, right into the middle of Season Two, when I discovered that my “complete” set had a duplicate disc 5 where disc 3 was supposed to be.
By then I knew that, in addition to being binge-worthy, China Beach needs to be watched in order.
So I set aside ten bucks to order a used copy of Season Two. Who knows what kind of mood I’ll be in when it gets here.
This I do know–the “Reflections” test has been passed.
I wondered if, after a few episodes, I’d be tempted to do what I do with most shows and skip the credits…and the theme song.
But no other TV series I’ve ever watched had for its theme a record I already loved unreservedly, believed to be one of the greatest records ever made, and didn’t think could possibly grow any larger by having a truncated version accompany the opening of a TV show.
Two things I can tell you after a season and a half of China Beach:
“Reflections” has grown for me. And it will never wear out.
The show aired from 1988 to 1991. We’re further from its airing than it was from its Viet Nam setting.
Except for whenever and wherever “Reflections” is playing. Whenever and wherever that is, it’s always 1968 and we’ve never walked away from it. It’s to China Beach‘s credit that, at least in the first season-and-a-half, it doesn’t pretend we have. That, and casting Dana Delaney as the spiritual daughter of Donna Reed’s character in They Were Expendable, are the show’s foundation. Michael Boatman is excellent, the rest of the cast is solid, especially Marg Helgenberger as the spiritual daughter of Donna Reed’s character in From Here to Eternity, and Nan Woods as a girl who might have been Donna Reed’s television daughter on The Donna Reed Show. But without Delaney the show would have run six weeks. Naturally, the suits wanted to fire her before the pilot was finished. The producers, probably understanding what that meant, stood their ground and pulled some subterfuge that involved a little black dress and a lot of All-American heads turning and made their point.
But, strong, even gut-wrenching, as the show is, nothing stands up to the first seconds of the theme, where Delaney’s hair being blown back keeps saying we can make it all go away, or even go back and make it all come out different.
And those lethal chords under Diana Ross’s voice keep saying we can’t.
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.
[NOTE: This is an interview that Mary Weiss gave to Norton Records’ Billy Miller and Miriam Linna in 2007 upon their release of Weiss’s first music in forty years. Weiss has not made any records since and the interview disappeared from Norton’s website a couple of years ago, apparently the victim of some serious weather damage to their offices. I’ve noticed that the links I once provided to that interview still draw a fair amount of interest and I’ve tried to contact Norton several times to see if they are ever planning to repost the interview. As I’ve not heard from them, I assume they are either not planning to do so or are seriously backlogged. I’m reposting the interview here because, even sans the cool graphics and trove of wonderful photos (a few of which I tracked down for some relevant passages here), it’s one of the most important interviews ever given by a rock and roll singer. If you’ve followed along on this site for a while, you know how I feel about the Shangri-Las, but, more to the point, you know how I feel about the often ridiculous narratives that were imposed on them–often by the usual well-intentioned sorts paving the usual roads to hell–during Mary’s forty years of silence. By extension, many of those same false narratives were imposed on the entire Girl Group era (another ongoing concern of this blog), and there has never been more de-bunking assembled in one place than this wide-ranging interview. If Norton re-posts this in the future I will re-link to it. If they request me to take this down, I will do so. In the meantime, I’ll post it here in the interests of historical preservation. It needs to be available somewhere. (And, of course, I encourage everyone to consider buying Norton’s products, especially Weiss’s still valuable CD, Dangerous Game, which now seems likely to be the last we will hear from her on record.)]
(MW is Mary Weiss, BM is Billy Miller, ML is Miriam Linna…I’ve retained the original’s sometimes idiosyncratic punctuation, etc.)
MW: Do you want to start with the Shangri stuff?
ML: Let’s start at the very beginning. Where were you born?
MW: Jamaica, Queens, New York. Jamaica hospital.
BM: Wow, me too. Same hospital!
ML: How about some family background?
MW: I grew up in Queens, Cambria Heights. My father died when I was six weeks old. I’m the youngest of three kids. My brother George was eight years older than me. He passed away in 1996. And my sister Liz was in the Shangri-Las with me.
ML: What drew you to the music?
MW: I became interested in music at about four or five years old. When I was a kid, I loved the Ink Spots and then with rock n’ roll, I loved the Everly Brothers and Neil Sedaka. My brother was much older, so I listened to all of the records he had. He was an Elvis freak. There were guys that sang on the street corner in my neighborhood. I would listen to them and I’d sing with them sometimes.
ML: Do you remember when you started singing.
MW: I always sang, as far back as I can remember. I sang in the church choir. I was in every shcool play and sang in all of them.
ML: Did you go to rock n’ roll shows?
MW: The only rock n’ roll show I attended was in grammar school. Our class wen to Freedomland and the Everly Brothers played. They did so much for everybody regarding harmony. By the time I was fifteen, I was always in the studio, so I didn’t get to go to shows at that time. I really didn’t go to concerts until much later.
ML: What were the local hangouts in your neighborhood for teenagers?
MW: It was a place called Ed’s. We all hung out there. There were all these groups of kids–Ed’s group, Bill’s group, Reno’s group, the 225th Street group and we all meet there, four or five groups of neighborhood kids.
ML: Who were you listening to?
MW: We’d listen to Babalu and Cousin Brucie on WABC. When I was a teenager, I bought all my records at Korvettes. They had the best record department and they were cheap.
BM: Great store! They’d print their own charts every week.
ML: How did you meet the Ganser sisters?
MW: I met the twins in grammar school although they went to public school and I went to Catholic school–so much for organized religiou! They lived a few blocks away. We hung out at their house and began singing together there and on the p layground. We all had an interest in music and our voiced blended well. At that time, we were really pursuing our own sond. We all went to Andrew Jackson High School for a while.
ML: Did you call yourselves the Shangri-Las right from the start?
MW: You know we didn’t have a name initially. We were going to make a record and we said “We better get a name–fast!” We were driving on Long Island and saw a restaurant called the Shangri-La. That’s where we got the name.
BM: Were you the lead singer from the start?
MW: Actually, my sister Liz was at first. On the first demo, on “Wishing Well,” that’s Liz. She actually sang both sides (“Hate To Say I Told You So”). She also sang “Shout.” “Wishing Well” was actually our demo and they played around with it and released it.
BM: Spokane Records. That was Artie Ripp, right?
MW: Right. Kama Sutra Productions. That was very short lived.
BM: I love that first record you made, “Simon Says” with the Lonnie Mack type guitar and the Bo Diddley beat.
MW: Liz was the lead singer on that one, too.
BM: You were singing at hops and dances, who was booking you when you started?
MW: Before we went to Red Bird, we had a manager names Tony Michaels.
BM: Now you met George “Shadow” Morton through Bob Lewis, Babalu from WABC.
MW: Right. Bob Lewis. That’s where I met George, at Bob’s apartment. Tony Michaels took us over there so he could hear us sing and get his opinion. George was there, I don’t know why he was there, but that’s how we met him. True story.
ML: In a nutshell, can you describe Shadow for us?
MW: George is one of the most colorful, unique people I’ve ever met in my life. Extremely talented. He used to be very difficult to get into a room at a scheduled time, but a brilliant man.
BM: An amazing producer.
MW: I was with George at some arena show when he met Phil Spector.
BM: Wow! What was that like?
MW: Oil and water! That’s all I can say. I was not happy to be there.
BM: There’s a 45 by a group called the Beatle-Ettes produced by a George Morton…
MW: I know what you’re going to ask and that’s not the Shangri-Las. They say a group called the Bon Bons is the Shangri-Las. That thing is everywhere. I see it all the time and go “Who the hell are they?”
BM: It doesn’t make any sense because you and Shadow pretty much started together.
MW: Right. You got me! I have no idea where people get this stuff.
BM: Did Shadow make any plans for you right away?
MW: No, not until we did the demo for “Remember.” Billy Joel played piano on it. George said he had a phone conversation with Billy years later and Billy said, “You owe me $67. You never paid me scale!”
BM: Was the demo really over seven minutes long like legend has it?
MW: I don’t think it was quite that long, it’s been exaggerated over the years, but it was longer than the actual record. At the time, it was unheard of to extend a record to more than a few minutes. That seemed abnormal to me.
BM: Still, it seems that it would be weird for Shadow to go that far out on a limb his first time out, with so much at stake.
MW: It would.
BM: So the whole reason for making the demo was that George had told Jeff Barry at Red Bird that he was a songwriter even though he’d never written anything before. In your words what transpired to bring all of this about? What exactly was the story?
MW: As far as “Remember (Walkin in the Sand)” goes, I think you should ask George Morton. My involvement with the song was in the studio.
ML: It’s a complex song.
MW: Initially it was done instrumentally and kind of evolved. I like that song a lot.
BM: And you did that at Mirasound in Manhattan?
MW: We did most of them there. We did use Ultra-Sonic sometimes. We did most of our demos there.
BM: My Boy Scout troop went to Ultra-Sonic in 1965 to see a real recording studio. I was really into it until the engineer goes, “You boys should have been here last night. The Shangri-Las were here.” That’s really not the kind of thing to tell a room full of teenage boys if you want them to keep paying attention.
MW: That wasn’t nice. It could have been fun!
BM: Now you tell me! The Shangri-Las first hit at the start of the British Invasion. That’s a mighty tough uphill battle.
MW: Absolutely. Look at the Beach Boys.
ML: When “Remember” hit, you started playing right away….
MW: Right away, yes. The Brooklyn Fox Theatre. I was traveling all the time. When I wasn’t doing that I was in the studio. When I wasn’t doing that I was rehearsing.
ML: Were you still in high school.
MW: I missed out on doing any real high school stuff. I went to professional school where you could leave if you had to tour. It was necessary. When you do television shows when you’re a kid, they put a tutor backstage in the corner with a little book. It’s the law. Kinda strange. Paul Jabara was my closest friend there. He wrote “Last Dance” for Donna Summer. Paul had the greatest sense of humor. I wish he was still around. I miss him to this day. I’d tag along to auditions with him. Once he stood on stage, pulled out his sheet music for the piano player–about ten feet long–and broke into “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” I sat in the back of theatre and was laughing so hard I was crying.
ML: When the Shangri-Las first became successful, did neighborhood friends act differently towards you?
MW: It’s a catch-22. They act differently towards you and meanwhile, you’re still hitting that handball and hanging out, but you don’t fit in anymore. It’s them that’s changed, not you. At the time, you think, “Oh, my God!”
ML: Were the twins like you? Was there a shared Shangri-Las persona?
MW: Mary Ann and Margie were more assertive, actually, as far as their public persona. Both of them were much gruffer than me. They both had great senses of humor. They were pranksters.
BM: What’d they do?
MW: Mostly stupid stuff. Margie added an apostrophe and an ‘s’ to Marvin Gaye’s door and took the ‘s’ off his last name so his door read “Marvin’s Gaye”.
ML: Did the twins have similar personalities?
MW: They were very similar personality-wise. Margie was more aggressive than Mary Ann. When my sister wasn’t in the group and it was just me and the twins, it was like “Hello? What do you mean ‘majority rules’?!” It was very devastating for Margie when Mary Ann died.
BM: Your sister didn’t tour at first, but she still sang on all the records, right?
MW: Yes, the four of us were on the records. Liz is an extremely talented singer. We’ve been through so much together. Liz looked like Bardot when she was young. She still lives near me now and has been happily married for 25 years.
ML: You went straight from playing neighborhood hops to big stages and national TV. Were you terrified?
MW: It didn’t faze me much. Maybe it should have (laughs).
BM: Those Murray the K shows at the Brooklyn Fox must have been brutal.
MW: They were real brutal. From early morning until late at night. Seven sets, back to back. You have a record on the charts–there you are! I did the Cow Palace and I don’t know how many big arenas. Right after “Remember” came out, James Brown hired us to do a Coliseum show in Texas. They had signs put up COLORED GIRLS’ and WHITE GIRLS’ bathrooms and I got in a huge fight with a cop because I used the black women’s bathroom and he drew his gun on me. I was absolutely amazed. This is backstage in a Coliseum and the white bathroom is on the entire other side of the floor. I really had to go and then get onstage!
BM: Is that where the song “What’s a Girl Supposed to Do” got its inspiration.
MW: (laughs) I’ve never seen anything like that. What surprised me more was the other women in the bathroom looking at me with their mouths open. Earlier, when we did the afternoon sound check, James Brown’s mouth fell open! He turned around and looked at me–here’s this little blonde girl. He thought we were black. All the other performers were black and we were very nervous because we didn’t know how the audience was going to respond. It turned out to be a great show!
BM: That’s wild.
MW: We worked with James a few time. I was at his house once. He lived in St. Albans, the next town over from Cambria Heights. He had “JB” on the gate. We were just BS’ing there, basically. I liked him.
BM: There’s a story of you putting Murray the K’s motorcycle on the roof of the Fox.
MW: Come on, Murray didn’t even have a motorcycle.
BM: But you did hit him in the face with a pie onstage at the Fox.
MW: That was long overdue! (laughs) One fun thing we’d do at the Fox, was if there was a really good group onstage, we’d grab a microphone behind the back curtain and there’s be four part harmony going on like a chorus. It was wonderful!
BM: You played a bunch with the Zombies.
MW: They were great guys. Still are. I just saw them play at B.B. King’s. They’re still great! I wish them the best in everything they do.
BM: What other groups did you pal around with?
MW: I didn’t get to pal around with anybody. We were so busy. It was very different then. Now these singers say how rough they have it. They don’t have a clue. Ride in a bus every night. Sleep every other night. See how that feels. People don’t realize how hard it was back then. There were no monitors at the time. Sometimes you were screaming just to hear yourself singing. The Dick Clark Caravans, they were grueling shows. Every other night you’d sleep in a hotel. Sleep on the bus, then you’d have to get up and look perky. It’s exhausting. But, there was one great thing at the end of the Dick Clark tours, because he’d have Caravans going all over the country and we’d all mee in one place and they’d have like a Battle of the Bands type thing with all the stars. Those were cool shows. You’d meet up in one arena, do one big show and then we’d all go home.
BM: Sometimes there were four of you and at various times, Liz, Margie and Mary Ann were off the road…
MW: And I was the one constant member. That was it. There’s lots of BS written about our group. I’ve seen it written that we missed concerts, that the other girls did some shows without me. That’s simply not true. I never missed a single show. I couldn’t take a break. Everyone got exhausted and could take time off. Touring was exhausting. Most of the times when I woke up, I didn’t know what state I was in. Too many buses, too many flights. Touring was a blur.
BM: Red Bird was owned by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and George Goldner. What were your impressions of them.
MW: We were crazy about George Goldner. In fact, at the end of our first year on Red Bird, we bought George a huge television set, at that time, they didn’t have them that big everywhere. We gave it to him with a big gold plaque on the front as a thank you present. It said, “George Goldner, Thank You, The Shangri-Las”. It was a gesture from us. I don’t think he got enough credit for anything at Red Bird. He was a kid who never grew up. Riding around in a Cadillac with the top down. He was like a very large child. I loved him.
BM: And Leiber and Stoller?
MW: Leiber and Stoller are wonderful people. They brought a tremendous amount of enthusiasm to all their artists. I have a lot of respect for them both, but they didn’t work with us directly. They worked on songs with George Morton, then he worked with us.
BM: “Leader of the Pack” was the second Red Bird record and the biggest one. There really wasn’t a motorcycle in the studio on the session, was there?
MW: I’ve heard that, too.
BM: Yeah, because you hear it roaring away. Where did it go?
MW: Studio B. (laughs)
BM: That guy on the album cover, was he anybody special?
MW: Absolutely not! And he sure didn’t look like any biker I knew!
ML: On the Red Bird recordings, they double-tracked your voice sometimes….
MW: Yes, on a few.
BM: That was quite a team that you had in the studio at Red Bird – (producer) Shadow Morton, (engineer) Brooks Arthur and (arranger) Artie Butler.
MW: Absolutely! I know. You can’t ever give them enough credit. The Shangri-Las was one of Brooksie’s first things. That’s why we’re friends to this day. Brooks Arthur is extremely talented in so many areas. Artie Butler is one of the most brilliant arrangers I’ver ever heard. I love both those guys.
BM: Those sessions were pretty monumental. Would you come in and sing or would you get more involved in the whole process?
MW: Oh, I always stayed there. I stayed for every mixing session.
ML: Even before you had to sing your parts?
MW: Right. I was there for every step.
BM: Would they listen to your input?
MW: Oh, sure.
BM: How much free rein did the group have on vocal arrangements? On something like say, “The Train Fom Kansas City,” that introduction is extraordinary.
MW: OK, on “The Train From Kansas City,” I worked hard with Jeff (Barry) on that. You can hear the flavor to it.
BM: Unmistakably the Shangri-Las.
MW: Our group, I mean even for that time period, the harmonies were unique. The blending of the voices was unique.
BM: Like “Out in the Streets”– flawless record. That’s my absolute favorite Shangri-Las record.
MW: That’s my favorite, too.
BM: Just curious, what would be your five favorite Shangri-Las records?
MW: “Out in the Streets,” “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” “I Can Never Go Home Anymore,” “Past, Present and Future” and “The Train From Kansas City.” I also like the Mercury record “I’ll Never Learn.”
BM: “Out in the Streets” and “Give Us Your Blessings,” you look in the national charts, and they weren’t real huge smash hits, but here in New York, those records were monsters. You heard them everywhere.
MW: Yes, they were biggest here. Definitely.
BM: Did you know that “Out in the Streets” was the last song played on WINS before they switched from rock ‘n’ roll to all news?
MW: Yes, I did. I thought that was quite touching. Very neat. There were a lot of great Djs then. They seemed to be more involved than nowadays where it’s all programmed.
BM: I dig “Heaven Only Knows” a lot.
MW: Really? Why’s that?
BM: I guess when I boutht “Give Us Your Blessings” as a kid and I got a great B-side, it was like getting an extra record.
MW: Oh, I hated it when the B-sides on records stunk. We always wanted both sides to be cool.
BM: Your flips were all killers–“Heaven Only Knows,” “The Train From Kansas City,” “Dressed in Black”…
ML: That deliberate spoken part….
MW: I always thought “Past, Present and Future” was a unique sounding record. And everybody that’s written about it said it was about rape. That was news to me! At the time, you need to remember, people are forgetting about the teenage angst. When somebody breaks your heart, you don’t want anyone near you. Things are very different now. Kids grow up younger and younger.
ML: Right. In the Shangri-Las, you had young voices singing about pretty heavy emotional stuff. It was like “Yeah, that’s how I feel.” You don’t have to relate to adult themes.
MW: When you’re a kid, who hasn’t felt like that? When somebody blows you off or hurts you, it’s very traumatic.
ML: Especially having a girl’s voice saying it. Other girls can relate, like “I have real feelings.”
MW: I thought we all felt like that.
BM: And your approach is so powerful. It sounds like you’re crying by the end of “I Can Never Go Home Anymore.”
MW: I was crying. That whole sentiment…it’s kinda funny because at the time I really didn’t talk to my mother at all.
BM: Your vocal delivery on “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” and “Past, Present and Future” was very personal, very intimate.
MW: The studio is a very private place. I always thought it should be. Actuall, at one Shangri-Las session, Mary Travers from Peter, Paul and Mary showed up. She was pregnant at the time. I was extremely impressed that she came. I would have been very nervous if I had known in advance that she was going to be there. She’s a wonderful talent and a great person.
BM: Who’s that singing the lead vocal on “I’m Blue.”
MW: Mary Ann.
BM: What do you remember about “Right Now and Not Later?”
MW: Not a whole hell of a lot! (laughs)
BM: Were there any songs that the Shangri-Las recorded for Red Bird that never got released?
ML: You must have been excited when your first album came out.
MW: All this stuff is exciting. Don’t get me wrong if you’re not getting that impression. It’s wonderful stuff when you open BILLBOARD and you’ve got two pages. “There it is! All right!!”
ML: Were the Red Bird sessions specifically for singles or did you try a few things and saw what clicked?
MW: One song most of the time, especially the larger sessions like “Remember” or “I Can Never Go Home Anymore.” The strings on that? I love them. Those were huge sessions with the room full of musicians.
BM: When rock videos started appearing, I always thought they could never capture what the Shangri-Las and Shadow Morton put into my imagination. Since I first heard “Remember,” I always pictured it all taking place at Long Beach on Long Island, for some reason.
MW: I did, too. Later, I pictured it in Florida. When we went to England we found, the British spent more time setting up everything as far as television goes. They’re meticulous. I walk in the studio and the entire soundstage was filled with sand and a giant grandfather clock for one song. I just could not believe it. It was beautiful. Dusty was on that show.
BM: Dusty Springfield?
MW: Yes, Dusty is an absolutely amazing talent. The Shangri-Las were in London doing Top of the Pops and Ready! Steady! Go! Dusty was having a very large party in her flat. It started out all civilized, nice French doors and antique desks, but she liked to start food fights. And she started one and I’m hiding under this lovely French desk with her manager and fish and food are flying by! They were actually throwing pies later in the night. So Mary Annd goes to put her boots on and they were filled with fish! Dusty was a kinky girl, but a true talent. But, Mary Ann got even with Dusty. She waited and waited and the next time we were with Dusty at the Brooklyn Fox, Mary Ann put fish in Dusty’s shoes. And that’s called….payback! (laughs)
MW: Dusty also flung crockery at the Fox. There was this place where she bought a ton of cheap crockery. We learned the fine art of throwing plates there. Stand at one end of the corridor and fling it with all your might. It makes a loud crash and gets rid of the stress. Parts of Dusty were very self-destructive, but the other side of her was so much fun. I’ll always think of her fondly, mo matter what anybody writes about her. The world will remember her talent. I’ll always remember her laughter, the fine art of crockery throwing….and her talent!
ML: Your records were pretty notorious right from the start.
MW: Look at “Leader.” It was banned in Britain. What was there to ban?
ML: In England there was a lot of trouble between the Mods and the Rockers. That’s why “Leader of the Pack” was probably banned.
MW: I was so proud. I was a Rocker!
MW: I got off the plane dressed in black leather. They definitely knew where I stood. (laughs)
ML: And what did you make of the Mods?
MW: The Mods were just not home. To each his own. Their lifestyle was…(laughs)…I was never into fashion.
ML: Which is wild because you became such a fashion icon.
MW: I could never picture myself sitting at a runway show, could you?
ML: No, never. But that’s the great thing. You subconsiously started a whole look.
MW: Who cares?
BM: I feel like I’m a guest on The View…
ML: But you only went to England, no other countries?
MW: Pretty much. There were a million things booked. I remember sitting in Los Angeles with these Japanese people and they were giving me scripts and things and making plans for us to go there.
ML: But you never did.
MW: Never did. It should have happened but there was just no time.
ML: Did you follow the charts?
MW: The charts thing is a strange position to be in. Once you have a smash hit, the record company is like, “OK, here’s the next one. I feel sorry for artists today. They’re here and gone and hey bring on th next one. I just saw Chrissie Hynde talking about today’s artists and what they face. Nobody gets behind them or develops them anymore. Bring on the next midriff section…
BM: Do you see the Shangri-Las in any act today?
MW: Maybe like the Donnas. I can see our attitude.
ML: Who were your favorites during the Shangri-Las years?
MW: I loved Dusty. The Jefferson Airplane, that might have been a little later, but I remember I first heard them on the way to the Fox Theatre. I saw Jimi Hendrix in the Village before he was famous. My jaw dropped. You know what was a great time? I went to a big party at Andy Warhol’s one day. It was fascinating. He had a huge loft with a deck and umbrellas and the bathroom had a golden throne. Very cool. Ultra Violet was there. Lots of cool people.
BM: There was a Shangri-Las Day at the New York World’s Fair.
MW: How did you know that?
BM: Because I remember being pissed that I didn’t get to go. We were always at the Word’s Fair.
MW: Me, too. I thought it was cool. They had a Monorail with our name on it and we performed.
BM: Mary, even being a star by then, that had to be a big thrill–hometown girls make good….
MW: Oh sure. We loved it. We all did.
BM: The Shangri-Las played at the New York Paramount with the Beatles. Did you meet them?
MW: No, they were on one floor and everybody else was on another. At the Paramount, Margie saved out the window high up so that everyone thought it was the Beatles waving. The crowd went nuts!
BM: When you gals….
MW: You gals? At least you didn’t say Girl Groups.
BM: Sorry Mary. No, I know better than to mention Girl Groups.
MW: Oh, kill me now! Thank you. How do you take an entire sex and dump them into one category? Girl Groups, I mean, please! What if we all had penises?
BM: Uh, that would have seriously affected the crush I had on you as a kid.
ML: People tend to categorize….
MW: Count me out. If Girl Groups were products, what were Boy Groups? (Looking at photo) Ow! You know who did this to my hair? Monti Rock III.
ML: How did Monti Rock end up doing your hair?
MW: He did our hair on that album cover nobody likes on Mercury, where we look Mod. Monti, wherever you are, what were you thinking?
ML: But you look so sultry there, like Veronica Lake.
MW: I look stupid. I didn’t like it at all.
ML: And those boots…
MW: Are you kidding? I’ll tell you what boots I really liked. They buttoned up and they were kid leather. There were like old fashioned 1890’s boots with cool heels. I got those at Saks.
ML: Boots became your signature.
MW: Yes, that’s why I like those outfits on the LEADER album. That was my thing.
ML: Whose suggestion was that?
MW: Nobody’s. That was us. It’s funny because it created such a hoopla, like we were tough, whatever and all it is, is a white shirt, a vest and a pair of black pants.
ML: But the black slacks, slacks at all, you really did something different there. It really defined the Shangri-Las.
MW: Jeans don’t fit on everyone.
BM: Yeah, when you’d see the Supremes on Ed Sullivan, hey’d have evening gowns on, old people’s clothes.
MW: I used to get my slacks on Eighth Street in the Village in a Men’s Store. People would look at me like I was gay because I like low rise pants. I don’t get it, quite frankly.
ML: These outfits were something else. (holds up I CAN NEVER GO HOME ANYMORE album)
MW: Yes, that’s what everyone was wearing ten years later, like Spandex.
ML: Now you couldn’t have bought those in a store. You had to have those made.
ML: Who designed them?
MW: We did. We just sat and did them ourselves.
ML: You don’t still have your boots, do you?
MW: Do you still have your boots from 1965?
BM: She might….
ML: The Shangri-Las got a lot of magazine coverage, too.
MW: We did a lot of interviews back then. “What do you do in your spare time?” What spare time?
BM: I have a record where the Shangri-Las are being interviewed and you get asked things like, “Do guys on the street really give you a great big kiss?”
MW: (laughs) “Ew, get away from me!”
BM: You hear so many stories about how bad you were….
MW: WHAT ABOUT IT!? (laughs)
ML: There’s stories about you tying up a guy and kidnapping him.
MW: You know, I don’t remember that, but if I did, he deserved it!
BM: And that you had guns….
MW: I did purchase a gun once, a little Derringer. I bought a gun after somebody tried to break into my hotel room. There were these glass panels on the side of the door and all of a sudden I see this arm coming through. Not only was I scared to death, but there were large amounts of money in the room. You’re on the road with no protection. But, I was a little kid. I didn’t know. Back then, you could walk in anywhere and buy a gun. But the FBI came to my mother’s house and said, “Will you please tell your daughter she’ll be arrested if she gets off the plane with her gun?” We just finished a tour in Florida and I turned it in at the police station down there.
BM: Did they get a chaperone for the group at any point?
MW: If you can call an eighteen-year-old a proper chaperone. Maybe nineteen, but that’s as grown up as it got. We had a road manager, Fat Frankie, for a while, then he managed NRBQ following that. That wasn’t much supervision. One of our other road managers was a black belt in karate. Once, there was a car full of drunken guys weaving all over a bridge, waving beer bottles and stuff and it was getting very dangerous. They kept swerving into our car and it was very scary. I was so petrified, my heart was in my throat. It was as if they thought they had the right to do this. They could have killed us all. Louis stopped the car and took them all on. They were flying everywhere, all over the bridge. You had no choice in the matter. It was a dark road with nowhere to go, there were no cell phones then. I’m glad he was there. I could see the headlines now, JIMMY KILLS MARY ON BRIDGE. It was much different than now. It’s very hard to explain. Nothing was organized. It was ‘Here’a list of shows, get on the road.” I was only fifteen.
ML: Now what about the night club scene?
MW: (whispers) I shouldn’t have even been in there. I was fifteen. We’d go in them and hang out, but we were more geared to the teen clubs. But we played the Whiskey A Go Go.
ML: Did the Shangri-Las work with one booking agency?
MW: Different ones. William Morris and others. But, you’d set limitations on them or they’d beat you to death, you’d never be off. You’d have to rehearse and record and do television, too.
BM: The Shangri-Las made so many TV appearances like Shindig and Hullabaloo. Here in New York, I never missed the Clay Cole Show. You seemed to be on it all the time…
MW: All the time. We sure were.
BM: It was almost like, time for Clay Cole, let’s see what’s new by the Shangri-Las.
MW: Clay had us on a lot. That was great! I’d walk in the studio, I knew all the guards by name, they were all nice, reputable people. I really felt at home there.
BM: And The Soupy Sales Show you were on that, too.
MW: I loved Soupy Sales! White Fang and Black Tooth. I loved it!
BM: And Philo Kvetch and Onions Oregano!
MW: Oniions Oregano–yeah, yeah! They had a gazillion White Fangs’ arms becaues the man doing White Fang kept burning it with his cigar! White Fang rules! I’d love to see the old Soupy tape again.
ML: What was it like dealing with mobs of fans?
MW: A lot of times it was very frightening. One time in an aquarium there was no security and I just about had my clothes ripped off. And the fans with pens almost poking your eye out. There was no security then. We were just winging it. When there’s a lot of them and one of you, it gets scary. I was in the Village one time and there was like thirty bikers and they recognized me. Luckily, they were fans and nothing happened.
BM: When Red Bird went out of business in 1966 and you signed to Mercury, how different was it from Red Bird? Did you notice a change?
MW: Definitely. There really wasn’t much support.
BM: Mercury issued two singles and the greatest hits album. The last Shangri-Las single “Take the Time” from 1967 is weird, a pro-Vietnam record.
MW: I never wanted to record that song. I was completely against the Vietnam War and I protested accordingly. Still, the Shangri-Las supported our servicemen and women and I’ve done many shows for them.
ML: The tough appearance of the Shangri-Las, that wasn’t just an image thing, you really were tough.
MW: In certain ways I am. When you’re a kid and you’re on the road and nobody’s got your back, you better be tough. You better act as tough as you can because they’ll devour you. We scared lots of people away, made lots of bands behave and back down. What else are you going to do?
ML: That wasn’t just you. That was your sister and the twins, too?
MW: Absolutely. It was us against the world, really. Miriam, you would have done the same thing. You would. It was better when we had our own band traveling with us. It was more like a family.
ML: One thing that makes the Shangri-Las different than a lot of female acts of the day, was most of them seemed overprotected. And it virtually was always a family member calling the shots.
MW: Can you imagine? Mommy is there to wipe your nose?
ML: You wouldn’t have had a chance to be tough. It’s what makes you who you are.
MW: Absolutely not. And I’d have been a different person if my father hadn’t died. They’re all life experiences. Some good, some bad. It’s the same thing when everybody’s your best friend and then they suddenly go away. That is a very hard lesson in life. Who are your friends? That is tough stuff. I guess in a way I’m tough. I’m a survivor.
BM: Was there a defining moment when the Shangri-Las split up?
MW: Everybody around us was suing each other. Basically to me, the litigation just got so insane and it wasn’t about music anymore.
ML: Did you go back home?
MW: I moved out on my eighteenth birthday. I moved into a hotel in Manhattan, then Gramercy Park and then I moved to San Francisco for a while. It was hard to get into the music business and it was even harder to get out. I couldn’t go near another record company for ten years.
ML: For the next ten years you couldn’t record?
MW: No. It was absolutely insane. And that was also how long I was still recognized in the street, which made it even more difficult. People don’t realize how comfortable it is being Joe Blow, private citizen. Everybody wants to be a star. I never quite got that, honestly.
ML: But singing was what you wanted to do, and when that was no longer an option, it must have been horrifying.
MW: It was. I lost my way.
ML: Ten year sentence, that’s rough
MW: It was real rough.
ML: It seems like you had a positive feeling and then to have it come crashing down…
MW: Yes and no. I could have pursued it further but how much deeper do you want to get into legal nonsense? At some point you just have to cut it off. I always thought that someday I’d go back to music, I just didn’t know when.
ML: Were you being pigeon holed or typecast? Did you want to do other types of music?
MW: Afterwards? Absolutely. I could have sung lots of stuff. I was always the one who pursued things here and there and I went up to a publisher, but disco was popular and they wanted me to put a gardenia in my hair and ….(dances)
BM: At least you don’t have bad disco albums coming back to haunt you. If you had to pick one song, a post Shangri-Las song by somebody else, to tackle, what would it be?
MW: I love Patti Smith. I always wish I had recorded “Because the Night.” What a great freakin’ song.
BM: The Shangri-Las got back together in 1977 and recorded for Seymour Stein at Sire Records. Seymour worked with the Shangri-Las in the sixties, right?
MW: Seymour was our road manager for a short period of time. Margie was a complete prankster and I don’t think Seymour got it. Kids will be kids. I think the fireworks didn’t set well with him. When we were touring and we were in states that sold fireworks, we always bought them and set them off.
BM: Teenage girls with explosives, what’s not to like?
ML: But nothing you recorded with Sire was ever released. Why was that?
MW: I was very grateful to Seymour years later for giving us a shot with Sire, but it wasn’t there, material-wise. I don’t want anything released that I don’t believe in. It just wasn’t there. I wish (Richard) Gottehrer had been brought in. It just wasn’t right. I welcomed the opportunity from Seymour Stein, but it just didn’t work out. We recorded a few things, but it wasn’t happening.
BM: Did Liz and Margie feel the same way?
MW: Yes, we all did.
BM: But the Shangri-Las did one unannounced show at CBGB at the time.
MW: That was cool! It was impromptu. We just walked in and had fun.
BM: Why didn’t you do more shows like that?
MW: I didn’t want to do old stuff. I could have done that for thirty years.
ML: The Shangri-Las accomplished a lot.
MW: I come from an extremely poor family. The Gansers were relatively poor. Nobody had any money. No money for attorneys. So considering where the four of us came from, with no support, no guidance and nothing behind us, we didn’t have proper outfits onstage. I mean nothing. It’s a miracle in itself to come from those circumstances and have hit records, so I’m very grateful.
ML: So where have you been?
MW: I went to work for an architectural firm and I was seriously into it. Then I got into commercial interiors, huge projects, buildings. Then we hit a point in our lives where you go, “What am I doing?” I knew where I feel at home and I’ve never felt more at home that with music. Either I’m gonna do it or not.
ML: Cool! Welcome back.
MW: Thanks, it’s been way too long. I look forward to recording and my future in music. Long live rock ‘n’ roll.
Those of you who have been following along for a while here know I’m fond of Time Life’s year-by-year surveys of music from the fifties, sixties and seventies.
The foundation for it all is a handful of CDs a fellow at work gave me about twenty years ago in lieu of sending them off to Goodwill. They survived the great CD selloff of 2002 because the record store wouldn’t take them. First among those were 1965: Classic Rock and its companion volume 1965: The Beat Goes On.
With oldies’ radio now a distant memory in my market, these are my closest proxy. (Somehow, listening to “radio” on the internet, or my satellite TV package just isn’t the same.) And, while I almost always learn something when I listen close to any given volume, these are the ones that still startle me the most.
With the Beatles, Stones and Dylan all missing (due to their catalogs being jealously guarded), you could still pick any couple of the forty-four cuts on these two discs, where there is nothing close to a pedestrian side, and write a short history of the Universe.
Relax: I’m not gonna do that.
I’m just going to talk about the Supremes and the Shangri-Las, two of my favorite subjects anyway, and paired here on tracks 16 and 17 of The Beat Goes On.
Funny enough, I had never really noticed it before: “I Hear a Symphony” and “I Can Never Go Home Any More” set back to back. This…
which, given Diana Ross’s gift for finding seduction in the saddest, most desperate breakup songs and melancholy in the most joyous love songs, could just as well be about the guy who left Mary Weiss in this…
…the most wrenching tale in the Shangs’ own little universe, which has more wrenching tales than any universe I know.
It’s not implausible to think that, if Berry Gordy had grown up in Queens instead of Detroit, Wiess might have had a dozen #1s and Ross might have had one or none.
But it’s probably not that simple. Alternative universes never are.
Diana Ross would have been driven by ambition wherever she was born. Even before she was famous–or Berry Gordy’s squeeze–it’s fair to assume that each record was part of a larger plan.
Weiss’s genius was for making every song she sang sound like it might be her last. That’s not exactly a surefire formula for building a career.
These two songs running together on a comp made her and Diana sound like sisters who never quite got along and thus walked different paths that only crossed at commitment to something larger than themselves.
They used to call that culture and rock and roll existed to extend it, make it larger, let new voices from places like Queens and Detroit sing out and express whatever special quality they possessed. Culture is supposed to make the world larger.
Except when we’re fooling ourselves, we don’t call it culture or anything else now, because the essential thing that made these records possible has vanished like smoke. Not the technology or the musical training or the will or even the voices themselves. Just the belief that it matters to something more than the bank account.
These days, everyone has an eye on their career from the cradle to the grave, so no one gives too much away in any single moment.
Once you start down that path–where Mary Weiss can’t exist–then Diana Ross can’t exist either, because there’s nothing for her to measure herself against.
If you want to know what that sounds like, now that even the 70s are becoming a distant memory, you can turn on your car radio any hour of the day and let it run straight from the lowest number to the highest.
And if you think that’s depressing, just be glad I”m not giving you access to what went through my head concerning the Roger McGuinn picking vs. Jeff Beck shredding guitars on “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “I’m a Man!” because, except through a pair of cheap headphones, we can’t go back there either.
Reflections, The Definitive Performances: 1964-1969. is a collection of period videos from the vintage years of the Supremes. It’s part of a series Motown put out about a decade back which included similar tributes to the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and Marvin Gaye.
They’re all worth owning. What makes this one stand out is that it is just the videos. The others come with narration, structure, context. This is just the Supremes: Diana, Mary, Flo and a little Cindy, performing, as it were, naked, no matter how spectacular the gowns are.
The performances are all from period television (with a couple of turns from a stage show in Stockholm real standouts–in one of them they prove you can dance the “The Happening” which is on par with repealing the laws of gravity). Thus, the usual mix: Live vocals and backing. Straight lip-synching, with one or the other of the backing singers not always bothering to move her lips being just one of the tells of the massive tensions that simmered inside the group almost from day one). Live vocals to studio tracks. Live lead vocals to studio tracks including studio vocal backing. Promo videos. You name it.
If you like to have fun figuring out that sort of thing, this will keep you hopping. If you are looking for one stellar vocal or visual performance after another, I can suggest you stick with the other titles in the series, especially the one on the Temptations.
If you want to be thrown into an impromptu journey through the glory and chaos that was “the sixties,” this lays the others to waste.
Just be sure to hit “Play All.”
Rest assured, there are glories to behold, the aforementioned Stockholm performances and their “Love Child’ on The Ed Sullivan Show, featuring ghetto fabulous outfits, bare feet, and Diana wearing a tee-shirt that reads “Love Child,” principle among them.
Also, be sure to check the “Studio Audio” version of “Baby Love” from Shivaree, which jumps, and the way they redefine too-cool-for-school on the promo for “My World is Empty Without You,” standing next to a white orchestra in a recording studio that, through the magic of video, psychically connects white teenagers gobbling up albums in a record store with the auto assembly lines everybody at Motown would have been working on if Diana Ross’s beau ideal, Berry Gordy, Jr., had never been born.
But the essence is limned by the extremes.
This version of “Come See About Me,” where, for once, the glamour drops away, and not only are they still the sexiest things walking, you get to hear the neighborhood harmony that was the real reason they were able to fight their way from the streets to the palace–why Gordy, the anti-Phil Spector, who believed his artists should be stars who outshone him, couldn’t stop believing in them through all the months-turning-to-years of the “No-Hit Supremes” back-story that would have underpinned the obvious narrative if the DVD was designed to tell their story. Sure, Diana slept with the boss. Don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got the goods:
Then watch the pure joy of performance devolve into the spirit of anarchy…in a promo, no less, the kind of thing which was invented to suppress every suggestion of unease or disorder…this is the closest I’ve seen to them being allowed to act out. It almost doesn’t matter what song is playing under it.
Unless the song is “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”….
Mary Wilson wrote in one of her memoirs about the pressure the group was constantly under to be “blacker” and what a ridiculous and de-humanizing limitation that was–as though one’s blackness could only be authenticated by adherence to preordained expectations.
She was right.
But Gordy wanted to get all the way to true integration, all the way to the main part of the mainstream, the one place where a new America could finally be forged out of the old one, rather than in lazy, nihilistic opposition to it.
He thought the Supremes, and only the Supremes, were his ticket…and America’s.
He was right, too.
If it didn’t quite work out all the way–if we hove within sight of shore and then, inexplicably, with the harbor in reach, chose to steer back toward the wild, gloomy sea–that’s our fault, not his. Great and successful as all the other Motown acts were, the Supremes, with more #1 pop hits in the sixties than all those other acts combined, were the ones who cashed the ticket on Gordy’s very Rock and Roll dream.
So, in a way, the bare bones approach of this up and down collection is, as the kids used to say, right on time.
I imagine the real reason there’s no narration/context is the permanent tension between Gordy, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross.
But you could also look at it this way:
Given what’s here, what could anyone possibly add?
Back when Phil Spector started hiding his soon to be wife, Ronnie Bennett of the Ronettes, from the world (and the Beatles), John Lennon would ask him “Where’s the Voice?”
When Brian Wilson first heard “Be My Baby,” the Ronettes’ first big hit, on the radio, he pulled off the road, and has said more than once that he’s played it every day since. He’s also said it wasn’t Phil Spector’s production that made the impact.
Ronnie herself reported her first meeting with Spector in her autobiography and described his response to first hearing her sing as something along the lines of “That’s it. That’s the voice I’ve been waiting for!”
Phil also frequently described himself as the only person who could have made Ronnie. or any of his other discoveries, stars, or at very least famous.
After reading Ronnie’s memoir years back (early nineties’ I’m guessing), I built some vague ideas and questions that had been rattling around in my head for about a decade (about how long it had been since I first heard “Be My Baby”), into a conclusion.
The conclusion: Phil Spector was the only person who could have kept Ronnie Bennett from becoming a superstar, and he used a three-step process. He signed her. Then he married her. Then he–no other word for it–tortured her.
You can read the book and find out the details–including the day John Lennon visited divorce court as a friend of both parties and came face to face with who Phil Spector really was.
Knowing all that, I still never quite understood “Be My Baby” as anything more than a great record with a great vocal.
Today, though, listening to the final volume of the Bear Family’s bottomless survey of “doo-wop,” broadly redefined as the vocal music of Black and Urban Immigrant America from 1938 to 1963, prepared for “Be My Baby” to fit the concept just like so many others (especially the early Motown acts, even including the Supremes and the Temptations) who aren’t usually included in the narrative had done.
I was still prepared for it when the famous intro, courtesy of Hal Blaine, brought the usual smile.
I wasn’t prepared for the Voice.
Having heard it a thousand times didn’t prepare me for it to cut through not only Spector’s gargantuan production, but every record that preceded it, not only on this final disc, but every disc that covered the twenty-five previous years. Today, on the way back from the doctor’s office, it hit me the way it must have hit Phil Spector, John Lennon, Brian Wilson….as something new and startling in the world.
It hit me as something completely new, no matter how much its similarities to Frankie Lymon and Brenda Lee were still obvious. They never had to fight Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and none of those who did ever made it sound so easy to blast a clean hole through it.
Today, Ronnie did.
Maybe it was the Bear Family’s famously superior mastering or having surround sound in the car or just the mood I was in (getting past my annual with the endo is always a relief).
Maybe it was just that the sprinkling of girl group records in the latter volumes of the series had made me rediscover how different the quality of female yearning was from any attitude copped by the boys of that or any era.
Whatever it was, today, like no day before, she was the Voice, maybe because the Lost World she represented seemed even more lost than all the other Lost Worlds surrounding her.
Be sure to stay tuned for the conversation which, among other things, covers their plans for the upcoming “Christmas album” which would be A Christmas Gift tor You from Philles Records (later Phil Spector), the greatest Christmas album ever made and, of course, released the day John Kennedy was assassinated…the day John Lennon had to step in and save us from.
Heard on the radio yesterday, in this order…pick the punk. Don’t worry, there’s a right answer, but it’s easy (hint: it’s not the one who was an actual punk):
“Borderline” came out in 1984, a couple of years before the others, the last really great year for American radio singles. It was the fifth single off her first album and wasn’t her first big hit (“Holiday,” fantastic, had gone Top 20, and “Lucky Star,” desultory, had gone Top 5). But, accompanied by her first striking video, it was her first cultural “moment.”**
It was only hearing it in this context that I realized how clean a break it was. I always thought of Madonna as an assimilator, a natural hit machine, gathering up previous strands into something fresh-but-still-recognizable in the manner of Tom Petty or Prince.
And in most respects–the cheesy, airless dance track, the hummable melody, the Supremes’ style beg in the storyline–“Borderline” is just that.
But the vocal has an off-hand quality that, in 1984, qualified it as a new direction. People had put that flat, affectless tone on the charts before, but usually as a novelty, not as an expression of passion. And nobody had made both an American hit (that thing that was always evading punks, which was why Belinda Carlisle stopped being one, hooked up with an ace rhythm section–that other thing punks kept not getting–and left her five thousand imitators, including the hundred or so who have been “critically acclaimed” somewhere along the way, writhing in the dust) and a great record out of it.
The affectlessness was affected, of course. If “Holiday” didn’t prove Madonna could sing, then her version of “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” from her second album offered proof in spades. (I kept waiting for something that proved she could dance–that never happened.) “Borderline” now sounds like an attempt to capture the spirit Diana Ross breathed into “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” which meant it was Madonna’s first successful attempt at bringing the girl group ethos up to date.
But without the old power the Motown/Red Bird/Philles machinery provided for Ross or Ronnie Spector or Mary Weiss–with just an early eighties’ standard issue dance track carrying the bottom and the middle–even Madonna’s “Love Don’t Live Here” voice would have sounded fake by comparison. Too professional, too not-a-teenager-anymore, too Reagan-era ready, too much of what the rest of her second album would sound like. Not so much a grab for the charts (she already had hits) as for cultural power.
Too much of that too soon, and the record might have still ridden high by the numbers–sort of like “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” which made Number One and signaled that Belinda Carlisle was about to disappear. Madonna’s real power was that she could sit in the middle of the slickest piece of crap on earth and still be true to her dual selves.
That was why she she was able to redirect John Lydon’s nihilistic “No future for me/No future for you” into the hyper-nihilistic, truly revolutionary, “Future? Who cares about the future?” even as her lyrics were mostly clever updates of pop platitudes. Affected or not, that voice was the first pure expression of a vision a pop star could live up to without either killing or exposing herself.
For a while anyway.
Long enough to become iconic.
Hearing “Borderline” in the middle of a standard Jack-style eighties’ run on the radio in this new environment made me realize that was the record where she set the edge she was still trying to stay on when she talked about blowing up the White House last week in the slickest possible “of course we all know I both mean and don’t mean every word I say….who cares about the future?” way, only to be outdone by Ashley Judd going all Weatherman on her and sticking both Madonna and “Madonna” safely and securely in the consumable past.
That’s the problem with even fake nihilism. Sooner or later, somebody–some sad Sid Vicious type–takes it seriously and pushes you to a place neither of your dual selves really wants to go.
The only way Madonna can ever get back in the game now–ever be more than a celebrity or a cash register again–is to start making great records again.
I’d love to hear it.
I won’t hold my breath.
**(I still recall a quote by Belinda Carlisle’s Go-Go’s’ drummer, Gina Schock, from a magazine I stupidly threw out somewhere along the way because I thought the quote was in another magazine I saved. Asked about Madonna, she said: “Well, she’s probably undermining everything we’re trying to do. But every time ‘Borderline’ comes on the radio, I turn up the volume.”)