I’m still debating whether to do a full review of Greil Marcus’ latest, which I posted about here. If/when I do, I’ll doubtless be speaking yet again of the good and the bad.
For the good….
The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs has a lot of the best sustained writing Marcus has done in years. The piece on Buddy Holly and the Beatles ranks with his best ever. The essay on “Money/Money Changes Everything” had me hearing new things in Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual after years of obsessive listening (and deepening my long-held conviction that it was the finest album released in the eighties and likely the greatest debut released by a solo artist in the rock and roll era). It turned me on to John Kaye’s The Dead Circus, which is the most fun I’ve had reading a modern novel in I don’t know how long.
He even admitted to now knowing Marge Ganser was long dead when he and Robert Christgau slandered her a few years back (see the link above) in the notes for a fine essay on Amy Winehouse and the Shangri-Las.
Then, for the rest….
Following up on my George Goldner post, there’s this:
“There would have been no rock & roll without him,” Phil Spector said when Goldner died, in 1970. Just months before, Goldner told the Rolling Stone writer Langdon Winner the story of how he got Arlene Smith, the seventeen-year-old lead singer of the Bronx quintet the Chantels, to do what she did–to go into the depths of doo-wop ballads like a maiden sacrificing herself to volcano gods. Winner had published a retrospective review of The Chantels, issued on Goldner’s End label in 1958, raving about Arlene Smith: “What’s so great about her voice? Well, to be frank, it starts where all the other voices in rock stop…When she reaches for a high note she just keeps going. There is never a hint of strain. Nothing drops out. Her tone expands in breadth to match the requirements of high pitch…Like a three-thousand dollar stereo system playing Beethoven’s Ninth, the highs, lows and mid range extend into infinity.”
“Shortly after the review appeared,” Winner wrote me in 2013, “I received a telephone call from George Goldner, legendary New York City record producer and businessman who’d recorded a number of early R&B, doo-wop and rock groups including the Chantels. He said he was coming to San Francisco on business and invited me to dinner. During a two-hour conversation, Goldner told a number of marvelous stories about Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Crows, the Flamingos, and other groups he’d produced over the years. It was clear that he was happy to be getting some notice in the pages of Rolling Stone and wanted to make sure he was receiving sufficient credit for his contributions to rock and roll. At one point, for example, he proudly explained that the ‘boy’ celebrated in the Ad Libs 1965 hit ‘The Boy from New York City’ was actually he himself.
“Eventually,” Winner went on, “I asked Goldner about the extraordinary intensity in Arlene Smith’s vocals. ‘Obviously, she has great natural ability and control of her voice,’ I said. ‘But she sings in a way that often seems right on the brink of emotional break down. Where did that come from?’ ‘You see,’ he said, ‘the Chantels were always very well prepared and sang beautifully. The first take of any of their songs was usually just about perfect. But I realized what a phenomenal talent Arlene Smith was. I wanted to push her to reach for something more. My strategy was to record two or three takes of a song and then storm out of the booth and start ranting. “This is horrible! Your singing today is lifeless, sloppy. Haven’t you been rehearsing? We’re just wasting our time here! What the hell’s the matter with you?” I’d look Arlene right in the eye and yell at her until she was nearly in tears, and then finally say, “OK, I give up. Let’s try it again.” The next cut was always the one I was looking for. The edge you hear in her voice, the tone of desperation approaching hysteria is what I was trying to pull out of her. And sometimes I succeeded.”
Marcus seems to swallow this version of events whole and–to some extent at least–view it with some approval.
That Arlene Smith herself might have a different view (as evinced in the link I provided in my last post, which has an hour-long interview with her from 2009 where, among other things, she goes to some lengths to stress that, while Goldner was sometimes present at her sessions, Richard Barrett discovered her, actually ran the sessions and approved final takes), seems to have never occurred to either Marcus or Langdon Winner.
Later in the book, Marcus says that Shadow Morton’s later history with the Shangri-Las sounds srikingly similar:
In the obituary (Morton’s) “Yeah, Well I Hear He’s Bad…” the journalist David Kamp recalled a conversation with Morton in the 1990s. “He kept talking about ‘the Ba-CAH-di’ that did him in…[He] seemed especially remorseful about his behavior towards Mary Weiss, the striking lead singer of the Shangri-Las; he said the Ba-CAH-di made him do some things to her so terrible that he didn’t want to go into them”–to my mind, the kind of things George Goldner did to Arlene Smith.
If, as seems likely, Goldner was feeding Langdon Winner a lot of hooey in 1970–doing what a lot of record producers (and movie directors) have done when a young woman is involved and transferring most of the credit for any magical results to himself–then, of course, it is not impossible that he patterned his memory after what he observed going on between Morton and Weiss (which Weiss, incidentally, has pushed back on to some degree on other occasions–not so much as to what happened [she did cry in the studio] as to why–personal pain, not harassment).
But what’s key here is that Marcus swallows the narrative he finds most appealing–does not question it or do due diligence in finding out whether this version of the story might be false, or at very least, incomplete. It’s not the first time he’s been guilty of same (I wrote about another instance here). But this time, it’s springing from a mind set that’s uncomfortably close to the one he evinces in the next quote– a sort of dark continuum from Goldner to his most famous protégé, Phil Spector:
Since 2009, when he was convicted of second-degree murder in the 2003 shooting death of the nightclub hostess, unsuccessful actress, and sometime blackface Little Richard impersonator Lana Clarkson at his mansion in Alhambra, California, Phil Spector has been serving nineteen years to life at a division of Corcoran State Prison. Amy Winehouse has been dead since 2011. If you listen to the Teddy Bears’ record now, and ignore what Spector did with the rest of his life, or even what he did in the few years after he made “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” his fate may not seem like such a tragedy. If you listen to Winehouse sing the song, you can hate her for what, as over a few July days she drank herself to death, she withheld from the world.
Now we’ve gone from the dubious to the unconscionable. From swallowing George Goldner’s brag about making Arlene Smith cry (for her own good of course–isn’t it always?), to Lana Clarkson being the cause of a tragedy that belongs not to her, a murder victim, but to her murderer–who wouldn’t have been a tragedy either if he hadn’t made such great records.
And, of course, to “hating” Amy Winehouse, for what “she withheld from the world.”
Bear in mind that this is what passes for serious discourse–and it’s nested rather casually inside writing that actually is serious discourse, like a snake hiding in the garden. The two things become indistinguishable, redolent of a spirit that is searching for some sort of emotional high and doesn’t care where it finds it.
If it can be found in the mystical link between Buddy Holly and the Beatles that’s wonderful.
If it can be found by de facto blaming Lana Clarkson for her own murder, because she was “unsuccessful” and did a bad Little Richard imitation, or hating Amy Winehouse for her suicide, while reserving the word “tragedy” for Phil Spector’s fate….well, evidently, that will do just as well.
All of which leads us, in a rather roundabout way, to the Ninth Maxim:
NO SYMPATHY FOR THE MURDERER.
No, not even if the murderer once lived the rock and roll dream so transcendently that he transformed himself from this…
And, no, not even if, in the last moment before his genius gave way to his monstrous demons, he was responsible for this: