HOWLIN’ WOLF aka THE ROCKIN’ CHAIR ALBUM (Track-By-Track)

Howlin’ Wolf (The Rockin’ Chair Album) (1962)

[NOTE: This is the second in my series of Track-By-Track appreciations of my twenty favorite vocal albums of the twentieth century.]

Howlin’ Wolf (born Chester Arthur Burnett) was the roughest of the post-war blues singers, the one closest in sound and spirit to prewar bluesmen like Texas’s Blind Willie Johnson and especially Wolf’s mentor the Delta’s own Charley Patton.

If he sounds slightly more accessible to modern ears, it’s likely due to better recording circumstances that improved on the primitive technology of the 1920s. Like all blues singers worth their salt, he wanted to be successful, to sell records, to escape plantation life. Unlike most–especially those who were incapable of the compromises that open most doors in the record business, the radio world, Las Vegas (whether someone, even the Wolf, is unwilling to make such compromises is another, perhaps unknowable story)–he was successful. Perhaps not by pop star standards, but he was able to make a living doing what he wanted to do.

For me, finding the Wolf among the blues singers was like finding Louis Armstrong or Elvis or Al Green or Patty Loveless elsewhere.

Aha, I thought. This is the one.

Where I found him was here, on the second collection of his 50s/early 60s singles put out by Chess records.

I was led to The Rockin’ Chair Album by the conventional wisdom which held that it represented him at his peak.

For once, the conventional wisdom was not just blowing smoke up my skirt.

“Shake for Me”–A lot of singers have expressed something along the lines of “shake it for me.” No one else made it sound like lives depended on it…his and hers.

The Red Rooster”–The Little Red Rooster, on the other hand, has all the time in the world. It’s not exactly as if it was given to him, it’s that he’s taking it anyway. Just try and stop him. The Wolf will laugh at you. Speed up the rooster? The one who’s too lazy to crow for day? Good luck with that.

“You’ll Be Mine”–An unholy noise, the vocal equivalent of a pile-driver. And yet, there’s a delicacy of feeling, a nuance of romanticism that belies the mighty yowl. In this reading, You’ll be mi-i-i-i-i-ine!, is equal parts joy of expectation, fear of loss, and something not quite definable. Terror of what he’ll do if it turns out she won’t be his perhaps? A lifetime of listening hasn’t yielded the answers. I wonder if I’ll be allowed to ponder it in the next life?

“Who’s Been Talkin'”–My favorite Wolf record, the very sound the Rolling Stones spent their early years chasing. The band may have even gotten there, and there would come a time when Mick Jagger had made enough deals with Lucifer to approximate Wolf’s capacity for excising everything inessential from a vocal. What he could never match–few could–was the ease available to a singer who dealt in souls himself. Ask me what My baby bought the ticket, long as my right arm means and I can’t tell you in words. But, in the place where words don’t count, I know exactly what it means.

“Wang Dang Doodle”–Like most of the songs on this album, this was written by Willie Dixon. Unlike most of Willie Dixon’s songs, here and elsewhere, this one is channeling “Young Goodman Brown.” Chester Burnett does Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Hawthorne descended from the Salem Witch Trial judge who never repented. Ah yes, it all makes sense now, this America!

“Little Baby”–Wolf turns ghost or is it stalker? He promises to follow the girl to church or jail. He swears he won’t let anything keep him from holding the money she wins at wages or playing the ponies. You go, and I’ll come with you, little baby.  So much for the light-hearted side.

“Spoonful”–Now you flip the record over and it gets deep. Deep enough to make the wicked guitar–wicked even for a Wolf record, maybe the very wickedest–take second place.

“Going Down Slow”–This is the one where he sings about having things kings and queens ain’t never had. Anybody else would be bragging, including the richest rock stars, especially the ones who settled for knighthoods. Silly buggers. They ain’t the Wolf. He ain’t bragging. Just telling it like it is.

“Down in the Bottom”–This is the one where he sings If you see me runnin’ you know my life’s at stake. What’s remarkable about the way he sings it–what turns it inside out and lands it on its head, and yours–is it sounds almost matter of fact. And it’s the “almost” that puts the smell of fear and danger in the air. Comic fear, sure. Comic danger. But the kind that whispers: Next time, you won’t be so lucky!

“Back Door Man”The men don’t know, but the little girls understand. Anything else you need to know?

“Howlin’ for My Baby”–This is the one where he takes a couple of minutes off to provide a prototype for a side of Otis Redding that never quite came out of Otis himself. If it had, he would have wasted Janis, Jimi, and the Who at Monterey. For the Wolf? A day at the office. Hey ya’ll, I think I just invented the future again. Make sure Mr. Chess gets my check now.

“Tell Me”–Trouble shows up at Wolf’s door….to tell him his baby is gone. He promises to forget in a voice that says he won’t. Oh, goodbye. Goodbye baby got to go. Trouble keeps knocking all the way through the fade. It knocks still. Wolf promises it will knock forever, whether he gets paid or not.

Next up: Bobby “Blue” Bland Two Steps From the Blues. (My complete review from 2012: “By which he means “not even two inches.” Should be fun!)

TRACK-BY-TRACK: I NEVER LOVED A MAN THE WAY I LOVE YOU

I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967)
Aretha Franklin

Aretha deserved every encomium she’s received, alive or dead.

But I found it curious, in the wake of her recent passing that I didn’t read much that really tried to place her in time–it was as though she was always there, or bound to be there. Her simultaneous arrivals at Atlantic Records, the altar of Artistic Genius, and the apex of Soul were noted but only as signposts along some inevitable road.

There was nothing “inevitable” about it.

When Jerry Wexler took his latest signing down to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in the first weeks of 1967, hoping to catch some of what Percy Sledge had laid down there a year earlier, he had already pronounced that he was going to “let Aretha be Aretha.”

A fine sentiment, but it was no-wise clear, to him or anyone else, what that even meant.

Aretha had been a gospel prodigy, then a semi-successful purveyor of supper club pop, gaining a reputation as a singer’s singer while releasing nine modest sellers at Columbia records in the first half of the sixties.

The record on how committed she was to making it as a pop singer is mixed–my guess is Aretha would have been more than a little satisfied if those records had sold well enough to make her the new Sarah Vaughn.

But there was a world beyond her (or anyone’s) ambition, and the world of 1967 was roiling with social and political cross-currents that left a lot of people wondering if the center would hold.

In the year of there’s something happening hear what it is ain’t exactly clear, and Janis, Jimi and the Who torching (literally and figuratively) the stage at the Monterey Pop festival (Rock and Roll America’s first serious turn toward paganism, coming soon to a theater near you!), not to mention relentless bad (or anyway nervous) news from Viet Nam, the inner city, the college campus, I Never Loved a Man was a strange sound indeed.

When the white boy critics who still make up the vast bulk of the crit-illuminati  write and speak of Gospel, they have a habit of setting if off from the world, as though it were some form of exotica, like third-world cuisine or the day they discovered the Kama Sutra.

One more way Black America is both eminently exploitable and not-quite-real.

Dollars-to-doughnuts not one of them is capable of holding the meaning of “gospel” (or Gospel) in his head for more than five seconds.

Adding a few actual black people (or women) to the mix has not altered this dynamic in the least.

They’re all still proudest of their atheism (i.e., their distance from belief).

I Never Loved a Man is, among many other things, the last shout of the gospel-based Civil Rights Movement. (By 1967, the old, non-violent, New Testament coalition was already strained at the seams by the New Militancy. Whether Martin Luther King could have held it together is an open question. Making sure it stayed open long enough to become a faded, not-quite-real, memory was the biggest reason so many people who had means, motive and opportunity wanted him dead.)

That’s appropriate enough. Gospel means the same whether it’s lower or upper case.

It means Christian revelation.

Or Revelation.

Every day of the week, including Saturday night.

Since it entered History, it’s  been the source of every move towards liberation History offers.

Same in 1967 as it ever was.

The preacher’s daughter knew. By 1967, she already had a lifetime of experience, in and out of the church.

Listen again:

“Respect”–Aretha “stole” Otis Redding’s song (his word, not mine) by taking the sound straight back to church and thereby lifting the lyric from the personal to the universal. If you listen deep enough you’ll hear why the Gospel message spread like wildfire through the ancient world from slave’s mouth to mistress’s ear. In the eyes of the new god, every man was suddenly a king, every woman suddenly a queen. Maybe the message had been around before. If so, it had failed to convince. No longer. R-e-s-p-e-c-t. Find out what it means to me in other words. And that’s not even counting the part about not wanting all your money.

“Drown in My Own Tears”–Sunday morning piano backing a confessional vocal devoted to worldly abandonment. You get it reverend.*

“I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”–Sex presented as the thing Jesus most needs to save you from. The question stays in the air for the length of the song: Can He? Can even He? A decade later, singing “Belle,” Al Green answered in the affirmative. Aretha left it open-ended. Neither approach can ever wear out, because it’s an (if not “the”) eternal question.

“Soul Serenade”–Dave Marsh was one of the few critics who later picked up on the value of Aretha’s pop career. Church singing aims for abandonment, pop is built around avoiding that very temptation. This is a perfect blend. It starts quiet–a consummate display of discipline–and builds as if the singer and her audience…er, congregation…are lifted, moment by moment.

“Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream”–A reverie that almost slides by. Smooth right until the end, when she takes off for the sky.

“Baby, Baby, Baby”–Is reach out for me boy still directed at the man she loved the way she loved a man before? Either way, she’s the guilty one….but only if loving him is a crime. Believe me, that’s a Pentecostal voice. No surprise she wrote it with her sister.

“Dr. Feelgood (Love is a Serious Business)”–The church piano reasserts itself. There’ s no build. She jumps right in. Sometimes you have to grab ’em right off. Wouldn’t want anybody nodding off in the back pew…let alone the front pew. This is the Sex Sermon folks. Second Sunday of the month! Wake up!

“Good Times”–Perhaps its time to mention that the girl had guts. Taking on–and taking down–Otis Redding might be enough for some people, but not for Aretha Franklin in 1967. She set her sights on Sam Cooke too. And if nobody could ever take down Sam Cooke, she certainly looked him in the eye on the way to higher ground. With an Ode to Saturday Night of course!

“Do Right Woman–Do Right Man”–Great as the vocal is, a surer sign of Aretha’s command of the studio (doubtless another benefit of the Columbia experience) is the overdubbed organ and piano, both played by her. I Never Loved a Man wasn’t only a vocal triumph, after all. She was in the process of proving herself a brilliant keyboardist and arranger as well.

“Save Me”–If there can be such a thing as a hidden gem on an album this popular, epic and influential, this would be it. A gut-bucket lick. A wailing vocal. The simplest arrangement on the record…and it just explodes. And somebody–maybe even the record company–knew albums exist for set ups….And the only song that could close this epic was….

“A Change is Gonna Come” –After the heartfelt intro–he had been a family friend, she didn’t have to pretend–Aretha didn’t add anything to Sam Cooke’s original, either temporally or spiritually. No one could. She sounds like she knows it–this is as reverent of its source as “Respect” was irreverent. But she also sounds like she knows that the moment could add something–that, two years after Cooke’s death, the idea that change was not going to come, had already reasserted itself. To turn that reassertion on its head was, perhaps, to rage against the dying of the light. Else affirmation of the sinner’s doubt. Given all that was at stake, no one who felt the loss, then or now, could blame her for trying too hard.

Aretha Franklin used the I Never Loved a Man sessions to set herself free–to insist that anyone not reaching for Higher Ground will soon be walking on the Devil’s dirt. The brilliance–and the resistance to the tides of History–flowed for a decade before the weight of carrying a burden no one should have to carry alone overwhelmed her. Being Queen proved as lonely as being King. At some point she retreated to the safe harbor of professionalism. There was no long fall and she always retained the capacity to, now and again, lift the heart.

But every reason she ever mattered was born in 1967, at the sessions, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and New York, that produced this album.

Whether she–or any of the tiny number who could ever be called her peers– lived and sang in vain will, alas, be up to us.

THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Summer 2018, Countdown)

10) Leslie Kong The “King” Kong Compilation (The Historic Reggae Recordings 1968-1970) (1981)

Kong was among the most famous reggae producers and label owners and it was his records–by Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff, The Pioneers, Toots and the Maytals–that broke the music internationally. All his big stars except Cliff are represented here and, while the music hardly lacks a political edge, Kong’s artists seemed to prize spiritual concerns above all.

Dekker’s records (especially “The Israelites”) are likely the ones recognizable to general American audiences (Cliff broke really big after Kong’s untimely death, producing his own biggest hits in a style clearly influenced by Kong’s earlier productions for him, fair enough since he was the one who induced Kong to start a recording label in the first place–both Cliff and Desmond Dekker reported undergoing deep spiritual crises after Kong died, which perhaps speaks to the sort of man it took to produce these visionary sides). In 1970, Kong wanted to release a comp of early tracks he had cut on Bob Marley’s Wailers. Bunny Wailer allegedly threatened to put a curse on him if he did so. Kong released the record anyway and died within the year.

That’s one theory on his unfortunate demise. My own involves the C.I.A.

I only had to hear this record once to know it wasn’t God.

9) The Beatles (1962-1966) (1973)

The “Red” album (and the accompanying Blue album, about which more in a minute) is how a lot of us who just missed the sixties got to know the Beatles. Well that and the air, where, like Elvis (and no one else, then or now), they were ever-present.

And, from this distance, this is still the best way to learn (or relearn) just how astonishing they were. Yes, there are dozens of tracks from the period I wouldn’t want to live without that aren’t here….But if you just want the essence, this can hardly be bettered. I bought this a week or two after I skipped my senior prom and took my mom to see I Wanna Hold Your Hand instead. In a life filled with mistakes, that might be the best series of decisions I ever made.

8) The Beatles 1967-1970 (1973)

I’ve always been an “early Beatles” devotee…and I’ve always known how silly the distinction is. This does just as fine a job of narrating their fall as the Red album does their rise. Hearing it now (after not having listened to it for a few years while watching more than the usual amount of water flow beneath the bridge) I can hear a lot of brilliance I previously cottoned to only as craft. (“Old Brown Shoe” anyone? “Let It Be?” I could go on.)

I’ve always leaned toward them having broken up at the right time, too–a feeling once locked into place by hearing “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” segue into “Honky Tonk Women” on an oldies station…Ouch!.

But “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” was the only thing I heard this time that didn’t make me wonder if I’d been wrong all along.

And…..

I can say all that and still admit I’ve never believed they meant a word of it, or needed to. I just don’t know if it makes me better or worse than those who need to believe otherwise.

7) Blondie (1976)

A stunning debut that, unsurprisingly, went mostly unnoticed at the time because Debbie Harry had dropped in from another planet. The look was futuristic with a pre-civilizational undertow (and who could resist that combo), but the voice was something new under the sun and the not-quite-flat affect was pure cult. No way would a woman who looked like that and wrote such whip-smart lyrics ever fail to become a star. No way would any woman who sounded like that ever be more than a novelty success.

One thing you can hear that might split the difference even now is how she had assembled–or latched onto–a band that could do most anything (never mind whether the vocal is from a Betty Boop contest in a Dada club, why is the guitar break from a spaghetti western?….Forty years later and it’s still confusing.) Of course, we know which way it went. She changed just enough. I’m glad. But I’m glad this exists, too. The world can always use a smile, especially if there will never be any way to know whether the joke’s on you.

6) Brenton Wood 18 Best (1991)

Southern born, L.A. raised (and based) soul singer who you probably think just about defines “journeyman.”

I’d give this a close listen  before you settle on a conclusion. His two big hits, “Gimme Little Sign” and “The Oogum Boogum Song,” catch him in prime form, but he stretched that form so gently and often that his comp amounts to a mysterious shape all its own.

I wasn’t surprised, reading up on him, to find he was an acolyte of L.A. r&b legend Jesse Belvin–Wood’s style seems an updating of the Belvin ethos. He floats like a butterfly, and, as this goes along, you start wondering just how many places he can land without getting swatted. Pretty soon, you’ve listened to the whole thing with a smile on your face and you know why he was a hero everywhere from East L.A. to the Carolina beaches to Leslie Kong’s island.

5) Neil Young Tonight’s the Night (1975)

Along with 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, my go-to Neil Young.

I seriously hope these are the two bleakest albums the man has recorded. But, being hooked on them, I don’t know if I can relate to him being any happier. (Which, except for “Rockin’ in the Free World”–where he ain’t all that much happier–he isn’t on any of the other stray tracks I love from across his career.)

One thing I admire is that he never made another Death Record. It’s not only cheating if you make more than one, it means you’ve made less than one. Now I hear there’s a live version from 1973, when this was recorded. Some say it’s even bleaker.

I’m thinking hard on whether that makes two…and whether I really want to go there to find out.

4) Elton John Rock of the Westies (1975)

Along with 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, my go-to Elton John album. I don’ t know if this and Tonight’s the Night are my favorite 1975 albums…but if you told me those were the only two I could keep, from a year Fleetwood Mac and Al Green were going strong, I wouldn’t kick.

Pop gems throughout. And if “Grow Some Funk of Your Own,” isn’t Elton’s finest vocal I don’t know what is. It’s certainly Bernie Taupin’s greatest lyric. I don’t know much, but I know when the gay English dude can dance with the pretty senorita in a border town without having a knife pulled on him and being told to get back home, we’ll all be living in a better place.

3) David Lindley, El Rayo-X (1981)

This is a nice debut album from a west coast sideman who had played with everybody who was anybody in the California Rock scene. The closest his ethos comes to resembling a big name’s is probably Warren Zevon, though it’s crossed with Jackson Browne and a light, but persistent south of the border flavor.

There are twelve tracks and eleven of them go down easy.

Where the one exception came from nobody knows, because for fury, menace and freedom, it has seldom been matched anywhere, and there is no additional evidence, on this fine album or anywhere else, that David Lindley is the sort of dude who would run straight over you with his ’49 Mercury and never even notice.

2) Moby Grape Live (2018)

I made this my impulse buy of the summer on the recommendation of Robert Christgau. He gave it an A- and scribbled something about the drummer and this being the best live music he’d heard from the famous San Francisco scene of the late sixties.

What is it really? A bunch of jamming musicians’ musicians who opened at Monterrey Pop and had the same chance to wow the world that was seized upon by Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Otis Redding. As I was listening to it (a not unpleasant experience mind you–they always played better than they sang, even in the studio–but not making me wish I did drugs so I could relate either), I remembered that Christgau once gave B+ grades to Tanya Tucker’s Greatest Hits, Chirpin’ and Beauty and the Beat.

I know taste is subjective, but the onset of senility can’t be discounted.

1) Smokey Robinson Smokin’ (1978)

CD version of Smokey’s live album from ’78. Long difficult to find on vinyl so this is the first time I’ve heard it.

It’s a wonderful album, filled with great moments from both the singer and his crack touring band. Needless to say, they don’t lack for material. I especially love the interaction with a black audience neither he nor they had reason to suspect would become permanently mixed again when the following year’s “Cruisin'” put his solo career back in the cultural space he had earned as frontman for the Miracles. And Smokey was as great on stage as he was in the studio–just one more way he was the complete poet Bob Dylan surely meant when either his mind or his mouth called him America’s greatest living example of same.

And nothing–not even “Mickey’s Monkey”–can match the first moment, when he steps to the mike in front of what he must have assumed would always be Black America and only Black America to open the show with “The Tracks of My Tears” and invests it with such shattering intensity it feels like he’s trying to save the American Experiment single-handed–and as if he just might be the only man who can.

If you lived through 1978, it might take you the rest of the day to shake that off.

I’m chalking up the album’s obscurity to the same forces that killed Leslie Kong.

Your mileage may vary.

“You say it, we play it….”

Til next time.

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Starz Up)

“Cherry Baby”
Starz (1977)
US #33
Recommended source: Brightest Starz: Anthology

Despite its impeccable Big Thing antecedents (Beatles, Beach Boys, Who), Power Pop never quite made it to Next Big Thing status on its own. It hung around–over ground in the music of Badfinger, Raspberries, Cheap Trick, Cars, Go-Go’s and underground (Big Star, Flamin’ Groovies and several hundred lesser bands)–without taking over. Even with the bleedover from bigger-than-the-genre bands like Blondie in the 70s and the Bangles in the 80s, and the inescapability of the Knack’s “My Sharona” in the late 70s, there simply weren’t enough hits.

And, as an unabashed fan of the genre (or maybe the word is concept), I have to say there weren’t enough hits because there simply weren’t enough great records.

Outside the bands I mentioned above and a few, mostly Brit, tweeners like Small Faces and the Move, Power Pop in its heyday promised more than it delivered. In the 70s, when there was still a chance it would be more than a sub-genre of the perpetually underachieving New Wave, only two records ever grabbed me.

One was Sniff N’ the Tears’ “Driver’s Seat,” which actually made the American top 20 and isn’t eligible for my little category here.

The other was Starz’ “Cherry Baby.”

1977 was the year the rock and roll experiment really started to waver. Besides “Cherry Baby,” Shaun Cassidy’s three great singles (“Da Doo Ron Ron,” “That’s Rock and Roll” and “Hey Deanie”) the radio was as dead to anybody who, from ignorance or otherwise, was holding disco at arm’s length as everybody claimed it had been in 1963, before the Beatles came along and saved us all.

In 1977, the Sex Pistols were apparently supposed to do it all again. They failed. Mostly because their records couldn’t compete with those made by black people.

They still can’t.

“Cherry Baby” did and does. If Starz (who preferred being billed as a metal band anyway) had been able to come up with another dozen of these, who knows….

Alas, there was only one. But it still makes me smile.

And, as I’ve learned long since, that’s not nothing.

RIGHT CROSS (Malcolm Young, R.I.P.)

It’s a little hard for a non-musician to say exactly what a rhythm guitarist adds to a rock and roll band but I’ve always assumed it had something to do with providing, you know, the rhythm.

If that’s true then few people have ever been a more hard core rock and roller than AC/DC’s Malcolm Young, who just passed away, twelve days after his older brother (and original producer), George, and three years after he retired from the band he founded with another brother, Angus, in the early seventies, as a result of complications due to early stage dementia. Because, before and after they were anything else, AC/DC were rhythm, rhythm, and more rhythm.

Yes, they wrote songs, including fifteen or twenty that became permanent radio staples and Malcolm had a strong hand it that, too. I suspect on some level, he played a role similar to John Entwistle’s in the Who–the steady hand, who took care of basic business, musically and otherwise, giving the more flamboyant personalities (in AC/DC, the head-banging, road-running, rhythm-rhythm-rhythm Angus, and the powerhouse rhythm-rhythm-rhythm lead singers Bon Scott and Brian Johnson) room to roam.

Unlike the punks who rose beside them or the death metal bands who sprang up in their wake (and often cited AC/DC as an influence), the Young brothers knew there was more to rhythm–and hence to the “rock and roll” they always insisted was a good enough description of what they did when anybody bothered to ask–than just playing loud, fast and primitive. Yes, they rocked–and rocked and rocked and rocked. But they never forgot to roll. Which is why they were a truly great band and also why they blasted out of more radios than all the punk and death metal bands combined back when rock and roll on the radio was still the common coin of the culture.

I suspect their “rhythm” guitarist had something to do with that, as well.

Malcolm Young and his band knew who they were, they kept on being who they were come hell or high water and they never quit or tried to be anyone else.

Very few of us get to pass to the next stage knowing we managed all that.

I hope the final highway led some place other than Hell, but, if not, at least Malcolm Young will be one of the very few who reach the last stop with his eyes wide open.

 

WHEN THE GO-GO’S RULED…AND WHY (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #107)

I just came across this clip from a Go-Go’s’ concert on Germany’s Rockpalast. It’s from smack dab in the middle of their three-year run on the charts. There is much better live footage of them across the years. They look exhausted here, ripe subjects for burnout and Exhibit A of “paying the price for too much too soon” even if it probably felt like a hundred years to them.

But….

I’ve never seen any other clip which demonstrates so clearly why they were the last great rock ‘n’ roll band, even if it turns out the members of the last great “rock” band are waiting to be born.

Except for the Who, no band ever had so many folks fighting for so little space…and the Who thrashed at each other as often as they meshed.

The Go-Go’s had at least three people playing what amounted to lead instruments and two of those were the rhythm section. They traded their licks at a speed that made everybody else who bothered trading licks (not all that many) sound like they were playing underwater. It really shouldn’t have worked and it wasn’t exactly to their advantage that they made it look–and sound–so easy.

And, brief as it is, this is the best look at Kathy Valentine’s hands I’ve ever seen. She’s playing a top ten hit (which she wrote) at Ramones’ speed, while carrying a melody line the Ramones would have killed for….all on a bass guitar.**

And she doesn’t dominate….Because even her hands aren’t faster or more fluid than Charlotte Caffey’s or Gina Schock’s or even Jane Wiedlin’s, all of whom knew a thing or two about carrying the melody and the beat themselves, even if they only had three seconds to do it before they threw it back to whoever threw it at them.

I’ve said it before, I say it again. They were the first and last “all female” band to have a #1 album in Billboard. When folks predicted there would surely be many more such bands, I said: “Not if they have to play like that.”

When there’s only one, there’s usually a reason….it’s worth remembering that now, when we are further removed from them than they were from Fats Domino and still waiting for someone to beat their time.

**To be fair, even the Go-Go’s didn’t write many melodies as compelling as “Vacation.”

PARANOIA BLUES….ON THE RADIO NO LESS (Segue of the Day: 4/7/17)

On the way back from errands yesterday….

taking a break from the right-wing radio meltdown following the Security State’s first major win in their nearly two-year war with Donald Trump (we bombed Syria in case you missed it….John McCain’s death-mask grin and Chuck “they’ve-got-six-ways-from-Sunday-of-getting-back-at-you” Schumer’s sad, sad capitulatory eyes told all the Establishment tales worth telling, their words being, as always, post-warning, irrelevant)….

I flipped over to the Classic Rock station….

Which, in the hunt for survival, no longer confines itself to Classic Rock…

And they play Blondie….”Heart of Glass” (not just Blondie, but disco Blondie)….and I think “I’ll just listen to see if they play the ‘pain in the ass’ version….

Which they did….

…and, as it winds down, I reach for the button, prepared to be let down, thinking Alex Jones in full freak-out will probably be better than what’s coming next…

But the dee-jay says the Who are next…and, of course, if the Who are next on a day like this one, it can only be this…

…(and I flash on my Godchild, circa 2005, saying “I thought the Republicans were supposed to change all this”….appropo of which betrayal I don’t recall…what I do remember is saying ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’…and then pointing to his parents (he was a he then) and saying, ‘they got their politics from Star Trek, I got mine from rock and roll, you’ll note which of us is never surprised’….and, for once, I get Daltrey’s final scream just right)

Which puts me in such a good mood, I’m prepared to put up with the Police, even though it’s not “Roxanne”….but instead the only song it can be, if it’s playing on a day like this one and it’s by the Police….

…from 1983…and, on a day like this one, I can’t help but finally get it.

I didn’t stay in the car to find out if Hot Chocolate’s “You Win Again” was up next.

Because, hey, I got my politics from rock and roll….so I can’t possibly get fooled again, no matter who “wins.”

Weird thing was, the song that really caught the vibe of the deadened air all around….

Was the first one.

THE SPIRIT OF ’65

CD Review:

Completely Under the Covers (2016)
Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs

There’s always been a place in Susanna Hoffs’ voice that feels like 1965 and is all the more compelling for persistently suggesting that the only thing 1965 was ever missing was her.

This is four CDs worth of her indulging the premise.

Oh, Matthew Sweet is here also and that’s hardly insignificant (they call themselves Sid n Susie….cute). But I’ve never thought I’d be interested in hearing him sing the phone book. With Hoffs, be it lead or harmony, I’m not so sure.

Well there’s no phone book test here, just a bunch of great songs from the Sixties (Disc 1: The original Under the Covers from 2006), Seventies (Disc 2: Under the Covers, Volume 2, from 2009 and Disc 3: Outtakes from the same sessions) and Eighties (Disc 4: Under the Covers, Volume 3 from 2012).

I didn’t make a count, but I’ll guess she takes the lead about two-thirds, him about a third, with a few trade-offs and close harmony leads throw in.

It doesn’t all work, or anyway it’s not all outstanding. I wasn’t surprised because I’ve pulled up their collaborations here and there on YouTube over the years and while the song choices always seemed compelling, the actual performances were a little too true to the originals to really add anything obvious.

Still, I thought it might be more compelling to sit down and listen to them all at once so when this came up cheap on Amazon with my birthday rolling around I sprang for it.

I wasn’t wrong either time.

Listening close, listening all at once, it’s compelling enough to amount to some sort of vision: a quarter-century of white rock and roll re-imagined as a set of well-produced folk songs. Slick but (mostly) not too slick.

Despite the slightly salacious series title, there’s nothing like sexual heat or chemistry going on here and nothing remotely like the subliminal, rivalry-based anger that drove pretty much every one of the great harmony acts that were around in ’65 (Beatles, Beach Boys, Byrds, Mamas & Papas, Simon & Garfunkel….all in all, not a happy bunch). I miss the heat. I miss the subliminal, which is so often the springboard for the sublime.

But this has a pull all its own. Some of it’s just the confidence that every song is tried and true. There’s no wondering if the tunes won’t work, especially since Sweet and Hoffs work only the tiniest variations on the originals. As the songs roll on–sixty in all, including fifteen bonus tracks not previously available–it’s those variations and their subtleties that take hold: Hoffs making rare use of her soprano for two magic seconds at the fade of “You’re So Vain” pulling the song backwards and forwards at the same time while also making it do something it never quite did before, which is hurt; the gentle subversion of refusing to either switch the gender for “Maggie May” and (following Linda Ronstadt) “Willin'” or just give them to the guy; the shift from Love’s “Alone Again Or” to Bran Wilson’s “The Warmth of the Sun” that actually feels like it’s straight from a bar band stage at Ciro’s on a night when nobody wants to dance.

And, all the way up in the Eighties’ portion of the program, proof that the old alternative universe dream of Hoffs fronting the Go-Go’s (the better singer hooking up with the greater band), was, like so many alt-universe dreams–including those being dreamed from left to right in this new world we’ve made–a false flag. All this version of “Our Lips Are Sealed” does is suggest that, in our non-alternative reality, Belinda Carlisle really is some kind of genius.

That’s how it goes throughout. The highs and lows chase each other around without leaving any indication that there could ever be a consensus on exactly which is which. The notion of a place where there’s a home for Yes and the Clash, the Who and James Taylor is just as mixed up and confused as you might fear and as oddly reassuring as you might hope.

Music for these times then?

I honestly wasn’t sure until I got to the middle of the third disc–all outtakes–and, with Sweet taking the lead and Hoffs pushing him from underneath the way Jackie DeShannon might have pushed Gene Clark if God had been on the ball in, yeah, ’65, and had them do an album of duets where they submerged their personalities into each other and the spirit of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” even if the song wasn’t yet available.

It’s a song Nick Lowe wrote in 1974 about the spirit of ’65, an unofficial sequel to the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” (which, by some unfathomable mystery, is missing from this set). A short time after, Elvis Costello and the Attractions turned it into an anthem of pure fury and one of the greatest rock and roll records ever made. You can hear those versions here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_u2OK_IKw0

Since then, there have been a boatload of other covers. You can chase those around YouTube all day long if so inclined, but, if not, I’ll just pull up the other two good ones I found here:

That gives you some idea of the song’s flexibility…its own ability to reach forward and back.

If you listen close to Costello’s version, you can even hear that old Byrds’ jangling guitar–the secret language of white rock for the last fifty years–chiming throughout…and breaking loose in the bridge.

Now what I can’t do is post Sid n Susie’s studio version, which hit me this week the way “Turn, Turn, Turn” hit me in the spring of ’78, when I got my high school diploma and my first copy of The Byrds’ Greatest Hits in the space of about twenty-four hours.

I can’t post it because it’s not on YouTube yet and I’m not into posting music there. Maybe I should be. Because, as things stand, I heartily recommend that you avoid the live versions which are posted and give no hint of anything but professional boredom.

Meanwhile, you’ll have to take my word for it that, without Matthew Sweet being anywhere near a Byrd (or Elvis Costello) vocally, or the band being anywhere near able to generate the Attractions’ mind-meld, Sid n Susie made me feel the gap between 1965 and now like nothing I’ve heard in decades. Like it still might be possible–just…and just for a moment–to wake up tomorrow and find that Peace, Love and Understanding had finally, in the moment when the children of ’65 have so far lost their minds that they’re holding their breath waiting for the CIA to save the Republic and the next Democratic Congress to convene anti-anti-communist versions of HUAC hearings, become not so funny at all.

It’s almost enough, all by itself, to redeem the idea of spending this last horrific decade treating rock and roll as folk music with which black people had nothing to do while pretending that such oversights are in no way responsible for our current predicament.

Well, that plus doing right by bubbling unders from the Left Banke….

UPDATE: As of 1/4/18, the Sid n Susie version of “What’s So Funny” is on YouTube. Get it while you can…

 

FORESHADOWING (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #89)

I’m starting to put my Eve of Destruction-by-Election Soundtrack together (Coming to a Blog Post Near You, November 7th!). Rummaging around, I found this little item. I have no idea whether it depicts a world busy being born or busy dying. I went to a gathering of Shades and asked the Shade of the Prophet, but he couldn’t tell me either (not only that, he refused to call me a Seeker…May the Nobel Committee take back his prize and Timothy Leary spike his dope in the Great Beyond!).

I like that about it.

What I really like, though, is that the crowd can’t tell whether they’re supposed to be dancing fast or slow. If that’s not a metaphor for the century after the American Century (and the Splendid Life of Keith Moon), I don’t know what is…