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

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

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

Well, maybe.

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

Ask Kurt Cobain. Ask Amy Winehouse.

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

Maybe Sandy Denny was just out of her time.

Else too perfectly of her time.

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

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

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

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

All within eight years.

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

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

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

For life-defining vocals, no year ran deeper.

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

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

It is hard to be one of anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not these people surely….

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

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

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

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

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

Death and Sex in other words.

You up for that?

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

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

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

was only playing around.

Her voice had always been poised between acceptance and revenge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alas, 1969 was the peak.

Perhaps there was nowhere to go but down.

In any case, down she went.

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

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

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

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

One more victim of the 60s. then.

The 1360s.

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

“POSSESSOR OF THE MAGIC TOUCH” (Dave Swarbrick, R.I.P.)

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I guess the other side needed a rolling minstrel. Dave Swarbrick, famous player of violins, electric and otherwise, has passed at the age of 75. The highlight of a very long career came with his work on Fairport Convention’s Unhalfbricking and Liege and Lief, two of the finest albums ever made in any form. In a band that contained Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny at the height of their powers, Swarbrick was still essential, able to effortlessly immerse himself in the mix until, gently or fiercely as needed, it was time to take center stage. His persistently eerie and imaginative responses to Denny’s doomed siren call here form a perfect representation of Fairport’s ethos…

But my very favorite moment from him is probably the lattice-weave country fiddle played here…

That’s “If you gotta go, go now,” for those who may have forgotten their Dylan or their French.

Indeed.

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MY MORE OR LESS FAVORITE ALBUMS BY ARTISTS WHO HAVE NEVER BEEN NOMINATED FOR THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME (Volume 1: The Sixties)

Just for fun…here’s the rules:

1) I didn’t include solo artists who are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of a group or one off groups who contain Hall of Fame members (so no Jerry Butler or Derek and the Dominoes for instance).

2) I didn’t include comps (no Dionne Warwick, Paul Revere and the Raiders, etc. who I know mostly through greatest hits packages).

3) I didn’t include anyone who has been inducted in one of the “extra” categories (so no Carole King, since she’s in as a songwriter).

4) I didn’t include anyone who isn’t eligible yet (No Roots or Moby, for instance….you’d be surprised how often this comes up in on-line discussions…for the record, an artist becomes eligible in the “Performer” category 25 years after the Hall determines they released their first record).

5) As the title of this post indicates, I didn’t include artists who have been nominated but not inducted (so no War or Spinners, who would otherwise have multiple entries)

6) This is not an argument that any or all of these acts should actually be in the Hall of Fame. Some should be, some shouldn’t, but I’ve made those arguments elsewhere (you can check the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame category on the right for further details if interested).

All that to keep it simple. Like to 25 or so**. Otherwise it was gonna get complicated. (**Note, that 25 was a general number for the total. Pretty sure it’s gonna be more like 30…or so. I keep remembering.)

So, in roughly chronological order (by year, but I didn’t look up month and day for those in the same year):

The Shangri-Las I Can Never Go Home Any More (1965)

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Note: I’ve never actually owned this album. I do have the original release Shangri-Las 65, which would be worthy on its own. This drops “Dum, Dum Ditty” (perhaps their weakest track) and adds the title track (one of their greatest) so it’s a no-brainer it’s the better album, even before taking the killer cover photo into consideration. I have a private theory that this cast a longer and deeper shadow than Rubber Soul. Me and Amy Winehouse are going to collaborate on a white paper proving this theory next time we get together at the big think tank in the sky. No neocons allowed.

Pick to Click: “Never Again”

Love (1966)

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Note: A racially transgressive sound that’s still radical. Oh, what might have been.

Pick to Click: “Signed DC” (pretty sure the Moody Blues cashed the intro into “Nights in White Satin”…roughly speaking)

Love Forever Changes (1967)

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Note: This is enough of a touchstone of its era it actually creates a backlash of sorts. You can prove how hip you are by preferring some other Love album to this one. Heck, you might even be right. I’ll just make my own distinction by saying several of Love’s other albums are great. This one’s on the order of a miracle. (Even with the guess-you-had-to-be-there cover, which will be a developing theme here!)

Pick to Click: “Bummer in the Summer”

Moby Grape (1967)

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Note: Another touchstone but not too many people insist anything else they did was greater. With reason. Not too much anybody did was greater.

Pick to Click: “Omaha”

Manfred Mann The Mighty Quinn (1968)

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Note: American version of an LP that was called Mighty Garvey in England (with a slightly different track selection). In case that and the cover aren’t 1968 enough for you, it actually has a (wonderful) song called “Cubist Town.” Didn’t sell, even though the title track was a big hit, and didn’t get them any street cred, even though it didn’t sell. I picked it up on a very strange and exhilarating day in 1979 which also involved Boone, North Carolina, a surly record store manager, choir practice, “Beach Baby,” “Cruel War,” a made-for-TV Monkees comp and my first ever speeding ticket. Basically the kind of day you can only have when you’re eighteen. Either that or in a dollar store somewhere a short time later. The memory hazes. Either way, It’s been making me smile ever since.

Pick to Click: “Each and Every Day”

Clarence Carter This Is Clarence Carter (1968)

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Note: Most of the soul giants have at least been nominated. No love for Clarence. Then again he never sounded like a guy who expected to be treated fairly and on his first album, his mournful side meshed perfectly with his definitivelly wicked sense of the absurd.

Pick to Click: “Do What You Gotta Do”

Joe South Introspect (1968)

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Note: Did somebody mention 1968? Based on the cover, South might have been hanging out at Haight-Asbury. He was actually hanging out in Nashville and Atlanta which meant the entire world had gone crazy or he was some kind of visionary who couldn’t be explained by ordinary marketing schemes. I’ll take both. The still, small voice in the back of everyone’s mind, who stayed there even after “Games People Play” broke wide open.

Pick to Click: “Redneck”

The Turtles The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands (1968)

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Note: Chasing cred, they parodied themselves and everybody else. They sort of got the cred and would have really gotten it if the biggest parody (“Elenore”) hadn’t gone top ten everywhere in the English-speaking world. That’s all very representative. It should have been a catastrophe on every level. Instead it came out…wistful. They probably liked themselves better than they thought.

Pick to Click: “Earth Anthem” (or else “Surfer Dan”…some choices really are too existential to permit any sort of oppressive concept like finality)

Mother Earth Presents Tracy Nelson Country

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Note: Actually this and Mother Earth’s Living With the Animals got swept away in the great CD selloff of 2002 (along with about 98 percent of the collection I had been building for fifteen years…life’s for making mistakes and regretting them as they say) and I’ve never managed to either forget or replace them. There’s nothing here to match Animals’ “Down So Low” but my memory is that this one was more cohesive. Brilliant in any case and as foundational of the alt-country concept as anything Gram Parsons was involved in.

Pick to Click: “Why, Why, Why”

Nancy Sinatra Nancy (1969)

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Note: The other side of the sixties (a long way from Manfred Mann, let alone Tracy Nelson), where Show Biz never died and still contained multitudes. I said my piece about this one here.

Pick to Click: “I’m Just in Love”

Fairport Convention What We Did on Our Holidays (1969)

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Note: Let’s put it this way. The name of the album is What We Did on Our Holidays. One of the cheerier tracks is called “The Lord Is in This Place…How Dreadful Is This Place.” That’s telling it like it is baby!

Pick to Click: “Meet On the Ledge”

Fairport Convention Unhalfbricking

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Note: Oh death, where is thy sting? Right here? No, no, that was our last album. Cheer up lads. Affirmation has arrived. Sort of. Time for the seventies to begin, maybe?

Pick to Click: “Si Tu Dois Partir”

(Volume 2: The Seventies, and Volme 3: The Eighties, to follow…soon, I hope)