Not sure if it was the presence of Vicki Peterson (subbing for Charlotte Caffey), or the acoustics in Jay Leno’s old studio, or the awareness that it was a one off to promote a song that cut everything on the radio to shreds the three or four times it played in your market before it disappeared, but this is the best live singing I’ve ever heard from the last great rock ‘n’ roll band:
First I better offer up my definition of a “harmony group,” which is any group that tends to privilege harmony over lead-and-support. That’s tricky. In rock and roll, lead and support groups almost always had formidable harmonies, even if they just amounted to Keith leaning into Mick’s mike. And, in fact, one of my two favorite rock and roll vocal arrangements (I’m leaving black and white gospel and bluegrass out of this) is Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia” which is just about the definition of a lead and support group finishing each others’ breaths. My other favorite is the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which is so purely harmonic it sounds like it couldn’t possibly have been “arranged” any more than breathing is.
With those for logical extremes, there’s a lot of room in between. I’d place the midpoint somewhere in the neighborhood of the Rascals’ “Good Lovin’,” which weaves a lot of fantastic and surprising harmonies into a classic lead and support structure. Start asking which sub-category the Rascals, or that record, fall in and we could be here all day.
So, to keep it simple, I’ll just list all the rock and roll aggregations I think of as being true harmony groups of the first order (no matter how many great leads they may have featured):
The Everly Brothers (from whom all else flows); the Fleetwoods; the Beach Boys; the Beatles; the Hollies; the Byrds; Simon and Garfunkel; the Mamas & the Papas; the 5th Dimension (at least until somebody figured out they could sell a lot more records by putting Marilyn McCoo out front); Spinners (a close call but I put them just this side of the divide); the Persuasions; ABBA; The Bangles.
That’s a nice baker’s dozen. I’m leaving out a lot. I’m counting Peter, Paul and Mary as folk. Doo wop is very confusing in this respect as is reggae. Groups as diverse as the Four Seasons, the Shangri-Las, the Jackson 5 or the Staple Singers (just to name a very few) had consistently fantastic harmonies, but were finally dominated by their principal lead singers. And a group like the Searchers made plenty of fine records without quite sustaining the heights of those I mentioned.
Still, even whittling the definition down to the bone, I’m left with Phil and Don, Gary Troxel, Brian and Carl; Paul and John; Allan Clarke; Gene Clark (with a nod to Roger McGuinn, who shared Sly Stone’s uncanny ability to be the dominant force in a group where he was far from the best singer); Paul and Artie; Denny and Cass; Marilyn and Billy; Bobby Smith and Philippe Wynne; Jerry Lawson; Agnetha and Frida; Susanna Hoffs and the Peterson sisters. (Update: Of course, I was bound to overlook a few. A day later, I already see the Impressions and the Turtles are inexcusably missing. Make ti a baker’s dozen plus two, then and my sincere apologies to Curtis and Howard and whoever else it will turn out I forgot. But it doesn’t change the final answer! 2nd Update: Also forgot the Bee Gees. Oh, yeah, them! Sorry Barry. Sorry Robin.)
If I had to pick a “greatest” I wouldn’t.Not even with a gun to my head. I’m a little thick but I’m not stupid.
As for a favorite?
Well, sometimes it’s easier than you think it will be.
You just have to think of a little test.
Like, who, of all those great singers, could make me listen to this tripe all the way through, every single time it ever came on the radio, just to hear a four line chorus which featured maybe your fiftieth best vocal?
You, Carl. Only you.
I’ve said it before, but there’s a piece of me that will never accept him being gone.
[Next Up…yet another fool’s game: My Favorite Dylan Cover]
CNN kicked off its series on “The Sixties” tonight with an hour on the British Invasion. Despite the presence of some fine music clips (which apparently couldn’t be helped) and a single, spirited, un-sourced moment from the period that had Graham Nash and Peter Noone debating whether pop music had the power to prevent World War Three (Nash in favor of the motion, Noone opposing) it was dreadful.
Maybe at some point I’ll acquire it and re-visit it long enough to dwell on all the reasons why. Depends on how firmly it stays stuck in my craw. The best I can say for it right now is that they didn’t actually come up with any new falsehoods–though they sure did string the existing, fossilized notions together fast and furiously, after the manner of warding off evil spirits.
For now, suffice it to say they did not attribute the Beatles’ smashing success to their combination of real musical genius and their special position of being–unlike virtually every other major pop star reigning over the American charts at their moment of arrival–neither black nor hillbilly nor urban immigrant nor (gasp) female. Or that the curious hold they have had on the intelligentsia from their moment of arrival (a hold completely unacknowledged in the special, which portrays them as “outsiders” facing the same kind of across-the-establishment-board opprobrium as the first generation rockers who inspired them) is surely as much due to this fact as to their undoubted musical genius.
Not that I was holding my breath or anything, but it would have been nice to have at least one countervailing, or merely skeptical, voice!
Anyway, the one sort of compelling bit for me was a handful of brief interview snippets with Susanna Hoffs, lead singer of the Bangles.
Like everyone else, she lacked for anything very interesting to say…But I realized it was the first time I had ever really heard her speak at length and I was struck by how disconnected her speaking voice is from her singing voice.
This isn’t at all common. Most really good singers, like most really good actors, carry the essence of their performing style in their every day voice and, much as I love Hoffs’ music, I might not have pursued it any further or thought of it as anything but a quirky anomaly…except…
Except that ever since I had my Cowsills’ kick a few months back, I’ve been working on a tantalizing theory (okay, tantalizing for me if not for anyone else) that, in the early eighties, when Vicki Peterson went looking for a lead voice for the Bangles, she might have, at least subconsciously, been looking for a replacement for her best friend at the time…
Who happened to be (and still is) Susan Cowsill.
Who also happened to be in all likelihood unavailable herself because she was then Dwight Twilley’s significant other and a member of his road band…Unlikely to quit her day job in other words.
There’s probably never going to be a way to prove my little theory, but I do know that the first time I pulled up this–Susan’s first solo single, recorded when she was seventeen and released in 1977 (or thereabouts)–I was immediately struck by how much she sounded like a slightly more laid-back, seventies-era version of Susanna Hoffs.
Or, to be more accurate, I was struck by how much a slightly revved-up, eighties-era version of Susanna Hoffs, adjusting for the full weight of the Bangles’ hair-raising harmonies behind her, sounded like Susan Cowsill.
This time, after I played Susan’s song a few times, I started searching around for some of Hoffs’ vocals (just to make sure I wasn’t kidding myself) and found the expected evidence (proof enough to my ear anyway, not that I really needed it…I’ve had enough Bangles’ kicks in my life to know I wasn’t imagining things).
And that led me to this, a slightly altered, knockout arrangement of “Eternal Flame” which I’m posting not so much because it proves a little part of my theory (there are plenty of examples that do it better) as because I like it so much…and because I now really wish they had used this stripped down arrangement on the record (which I love anyway…but from now on I’ll always hear what might have been):
And, lovely as all that is, I still might not have posted anything….
Except that chasing Bangles’ videos led me to a lengthy interview with Hoffs, which is worth hearing in any case, but which I’m linking especially for my Elvis fans…because the way she lights up when she briefly talks about Graceland between the 6:30 and 7:30 marks says as much about why the flame won’t die as any thousand scholarly essays ever will (you can fast forward to that segment if you don’t want to listen to the rest…Hope you’ll get as big a kick out of it as I did).
I’ll definitely write more about the Cowsills in the future…at very least a review of the documentary about them which came out a couple of years ago. I’m a sucker for “might have been” stories and few people have a better one. And, as I’ve said before, Susan Cowsill has led an epic American life, in which little asides like possibly inspiring the revolution’s last really great vocal group are basically par for the course.
Maybe this will get me fired up for that little project again.
Then at least I’ll have something to thank CNN for…Well, besides leading me to all this.
I rented Hemingway and Gellhorn, popped it in the DVD player, negotiated my way past the menu and immediately found myself staring into the age-and-war-and-Dachau-witnessing-ravaged face and listening to the tobacco-stained-and-whiskey-soaked voice of Martha Gellhorn, one of the twentieth century’s greatest journalists and war correspondents, looking back on her glorious youth. Gellhorn herself having been dead for a while when this was made (and me actually having no idea whatsoever of how she really looked or sounded), I spent the first thirty seconds or so wondering who this terrific actress was they got to not so much “play” as embody Gellhorn in old age.
Then there was a certain flicker of the eyes or tilt of the head that hinted it might actually be the woman whose name was over the credits.
Viewing this very, very good film (or “miniseries” or “TV movie” or “event” or whatever it’s supposed to be called if it ran on HBO), I was never quite able to recover from that initial shock. I’m a fan of Kidman’s. She was the main reason I wanted to see this, and, of course, she’s been truly fantastic here and there over the years. And she’s quite good in this, too, playing–but not quite embodying–Gellhorn in the days before age, war, Dachau and Ernest Hemingway (Clive Owen, first rate as usual) took their toll.
But what she achieves here as the older, backward-looking-but-always-forward-moving Gellhorn really begs the question of why she’s been so hellishly obsessed with losing her looks and having all that useless plastic surgery that’s done nothing but make her a punch line. My God, woman, if you can act like that you’ll work forever–and you’ll be remembered forever! Let the other stuff go. I beg you.
YouTube Dynamite: The Cowsills at the Playboy Mansion (1970).
For those who don’t know (or remember), the Cowsills were the family band who essentially invented the brand of Teen Pop that–from the J5 and the Osmonds (who were breaking wide open as this played originally in May, 1970, on Hugh Hefner’s short-lived music show Playboy After Dark) to whoever is set to replace Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus tomorrow–has periodically ruled the world ever since.
They had a run of late-sixties’ hits themselves but were ultimately cheated out of their truly just reward when the television producers who had directly modeled The Partridge Family after them wanted some–but not all–of them for the cast and they refused to participate. At which point an industry already heavily aligned against them because of the actions of their abusive, alcoholic, manager-father, whose belligerence had, among other things, previously cost them a record setting ten-show contract with The Ed Sullivan Show, rapidly turned its back.
Within two years of the video linked below they had disbanded, as both a musical group and a family unit. The family unit and the musical group both reformed in later years–tentatively at first, but these days they’ve become a permanent fixture on the oldies circuit. There has been a new birth of critical respect after retro-genres like “Sunshine Pop” came into vogue and more has become known about the brothers’ considerable writing and playing abilities. Evidently, many of the personal wounds have healed as well.
But the saddest words of tongue and pen are still “it might have been,” and what I see in the video below is a Teen Pop act that never would have needed to take a back seat to any of their heirs if talent had been all that mattered.
If you don’t already know, it probably won’t be hard to guess from watching the video which two of the children the producers wanted in particular.
That would be Susan Cowsill, then a week short of her eleventh birthday, who first charms a room full of Playboy Bunnies and then makes them utterly disappear (not least when they are milling about in front of her, blocking the damn view! get out of the way people, we wanna see the ten-year-old! don’t you know talent always wins!), dancing beside her brother Barry–the other one the producers were ready to cast.
Great as Barry’s vocal is here on what was probably their best song (“II x II”–the second song in the sequence), he was even better on his instrument. The epic bass guitar on “Indian Lake” and “Hair,” two of their biggest hits, which most people probably assume were played by the sort of crack session men who have backed every single other Teen Pop act from then to now, were his (both records were produced–superbly–by his brother Bill, who had subsequently been kicked out of the band by their father in a crowning act of genius!).
Those landmarks–as indelible as any bass lines in the rock and roll era, which means as indelible as any in the history of bass lines–were well in Barry’s past when he stepped to the mike on this particular night, four months short of his sixteenth birthday.
The Cowsills “Where Is Love,” “II X II” and “Poor Baby”(Live at the Playboy Mansion)
Susan Cowsill has long since become one of the country’s best singer-songwriters and has lived a genuinely epic American life which I’m just beginning to learn about in depth and which I’ll get to more of in the coming days or weeks.
Barry Cowsill disappeared during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. His body washed up in the Mississippi River four months afterwards and was finally identified a week later.
Believe it or not, some people made fun of me back then when I said it was a musical, as well as human, tragedy.
You can listen to Susan’s tribute to Barry below–singing one of his songs, with her surviving brothers on backing vocals (plus Jackson Browne and the Bangles’ Vicki Peterson)–and judge for yourself:
Susan Cowsill “River of Love” (Studio Recording with Video Clip)
NOTE: I’ve got the recent acclaimed documentary about the band on its way and I’ll almost certainly have more thoughts on them (and more links–to Susan’s story for sure) after I have a chance to watch the whole thing.
But that first video above has been my YouTube crack for this week. And, hey, if you don’t cry (or smile) for anything else, you can at least cry (or smile) for an age when Hugh Hefner still had taste in women! Still can’t figure out if he ruined us or we ruined him in the long fall since. The corny jokes here provide no clue to the enduring mystery…
[NOTE: I’m snowed under this week so I’m posting an unpublished piece I wrote on the occasion of Alex Chilton’s passing in March of 2010.]
“Hanging out, down the street, the same old thing we did last week”
Big Star: “In The Street”
In 1975 my family was living in rural northern Florida when my sister’s oldest boy moved down from Memphis. I was in high school, he was just out, and over the next year and a half he introduced me to two significant experiences:
The first experience was a running, detailed, part-scary, part-hilarious, part matter-of-fact informal history of life on the mean streets of Memphis circa the early-seventies–what, in other words, exactly was going on when kids hung out down the street and did the same old things they did last week.
The second experience was my introduction to the radio–still vital then, no matter what you may have heard.
My nephew moved out to get on with his life in less than two years. I’m still chasing the music.
Somewhere fairly early in the chase (maybe a decade or so) I came across Big Star.
Imagine my surprise at hearing the world my nephew had so vividly described dragged out of the air and put on wax. Imagine my further surprise at finding this had been done with little–albeit telling–reference to specific detail. (Even today, when I listen to #1 Record or Radio City, I keep searching for the lines about knocking down mailboxes with baseball bats and deciding whether to toss the day’s supply of rotten eggs at houses or hookers which I know must be there right next to “bust the streetlight, out past midnight!”).
Like most great artists, though, Alex Chilton was defined as much by what he left out as by what he put in. I have no idea just how closely his (or Big Star founder Chris Bell’s) actual experiences tracked with my street-tough nephew’s (though I can say that what they did describe tracks very closely indeed). But I know it’s no accident that the feel of listening to those straight-from-the-lower-middle-class-’hood stories and to Big Star’s music were so indelibly linked.
Which is to say you didn’t have to be a survivor of a knife-fight in front of your own house (saved from four crazed white boy assailants–and on a day when you weren’t even running with Bill Black’s nephew**–when a jacket yanked at the collar came miraculously off your back and a yell from your sister came just in time for you to dodge a bowie knife thrown at the back of your head)–or on the public high school record as the fastest white boy in Memphis (which is maybe at least part of how you live to tell about these things) to catch the strange, compelling combination of alienation, fear and intimacy in Big Star’s best music.
The record of this accessibility is well-catalogued now. Among the five great American bands who built the bridge from the “garage” ethos of the sixties to seventies’ punk and eighties-to-today alternative (the Velvet Underground, MC5, Stooges and New York Dolls being their compadres) Big Star were unique in several significant ways.
They were urban but southern (which in the seventies still meant somewhat closer to a rural than industrial sensibility). They were relatively apolitical (which translated into deeply personal stances I would argue ended up being the politics that mattered most–even before taking into account how much, “I’m starting to understand, what’s going on and how it’s planned,” might mean to those of us who grew up in the shadows of Viet Nam and Watergate). They were (perhaps as a result) less openly aggressive–even the assaults were seductive. And, finally, in what was seen then as a quirky aside but spoke more and more powerfully down the years as alienation has become the national monomania, their eventual leader was the only member of those great bands who turned his back on actual–as opposed to theoretical–commercial success.
For all of those reasons, Big Star’s music stayed off the radio–and got around. And, when it had finally gotten around enough, it found–or made–relevance everywhere: in the Los Angeles of Jane Wiedlin and Vicki Peterson, in the the San Pedro of D. Boon and Mike Watt, in the Minneapolis of Paul Westerberg, in the Athens of Mike Mills and Michael Stipe, in the Seattle of Kurt Cobain and, yes, in small North Florida towns, too.
Some of those artists paid direct tribute to Chilton, others may not have cared for him at all. But they and thousands like them were each shaped by environments he and his band made possible. All were children, in a sense, of a man who was famous for being cantankerous and dismissive of his own music (and of Big Star in particular).
That, too, is not unusual for artists of every stripe but it is, in a way, disheartening to contemplate in those with real, not to say monumental, accomplishments. It would be nice to believe there was some internal space to which a man who had been (as leader of the Box Tops) one of the half-dozen greatest white soul voices in rock history, a seminal producer and song-writer and a solo artist who could be great or terrible but could never, ever be accused of standing still, could repair to let his defenses down and accept how much he had meant to so many.
But he was surely right to be wary of too much adulation or self-congratulations–or any unearned idea that the past is merely a warm place to visit. One way and another, “don’t push me ’round,”–an attitude that defines a lot more about Memphis than just its music–has both created a great deal of what is most worthwhile in this world and exacted a terrible price. One way and another, the hard fight to break away from those streets which Big Star illuminated so memorably caught up with everyone from Elvis Presley to Johnny Burnette to Al Jackson, Jr. to Bill Black (not the mention his nephew, see below) to Chris Bell himself.
Whether it finally caught Alex Chilton–in another time and place (i.e., some years down the road in New Orleans)–is harder to say.
What can be said is that in the city where the three great cultural movements of mid-twentieth century America–blues, rockabilly and soul–found their surest footing on the way to changing the world for the better, Chilton and his Big Star brothers made a sound that was unlike anything before it and forged a way ahead that provided a framework for most of what has remained vital in white rock for nearly forty years.
Perhaps more importantly, they made–and inspired–music that has never stopped being a place where those who prefer to be not quite so alienated as the national monomania demands can still find a home.
(**Later beaten to death in Memphis. My nephew wasn’t sure of the details. Sometimes it’s safer that way.)