The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea, The plowman homeward plods his weary way, And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
(Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”)
Virgil Caine is the name and I served on the Danville train, ‘Til Stoneman’s Cavalry came and tore up the tracks again…
(The Band, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”)
I’ve mentioned before that I drive a hundred miles each way to put flowers on my mother’s grave every Mother’s Day. My parents are the only appointed missionaries buried at the oldest Baptist church in Florida (est. 1825). Every year, I walk around to see who has died. Every year, one or two familiar names are added (usually wives joining husbands long passed). Every year, I note the military ranks of many of the departed. It’s a small church with a small graveyard so the military mentions toward the middle and back of the cemetery are a smattering.
Korea (my Sunday School teacher, he never mentioned it).
WWII (the man who loaned us money to travel home to see family the first Christmas we moved there, he never mentioned it…this year, he was joined by his daughter, a college teacher who wrote the letter of recommendation that helped me get a job at the Southern Baptist Convention’s center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina in the summer of ’79….else her husband…the grave was fresh dug, no stone yet).
WWI. (too far back for me to know them personally though the names suggest I knew their heirs).
At the front, the names are somewhat more numerous. Up in that part of the churchyard, the military designation is always CSA. Some of them died in what they would have called The War Between the States, some after. Whenever they died, an alarming number bear birth dates of 1848, 1849, 1850. By the end, the CSA was calling up fifteen-year-olds.
That’s what happens at the end, when your life is at stake.
I never had much sympathy for the Lost Cause or Ye Olde Confederacy. A permanent curse on the slaveocracy who cast their permanent curse on us. As much as I know anything, I know if we’d somehow managed to win, we’d have been the Balkans and the USA would have been some hellish combination of Germany and Russia. Best that it worked out as it did.
But I don’t like to run from the past either.
If I’d been born in 1849, I know where my bones would lie…and I don’t doubt the military designation on my grave would read CSA. If not in this churchyard, then some other, because I doubt there’s a vintage cemetery in the parts of the South where my folks came from that doesn’t have an even longer row of the Lost Cause’s Honored Dead.
Hell, by the time Stoneman’s Cavalry rode their last, ” just eighteen” was an old man in the army of the CSA.
And it’s not like I have to project.
When Stonewall Jackson’s West Point roommate, George Stoneman, rode out to exact the final vengeance for his humiliation at Chancellorsville (the high tide of both the Confederate States of America and his roommate’s brilliant career, which ebbed away in an instant when a unit from my mother’s home state mistook Jackson for the enemy in the gloaming and mortally wounded him), he left from Knoxville, Tennessee, twenty miles from my father’s stone-cold Unionist home town (where the college my father had not quite graduated from when Pearl Harbor re-directed his life down a path that eventually led him to the bible college that sits seven miles from where my parents are buried, was founded by one of the South’s now forgotten fire-breathing abolitionists and where my father’s older relatives nonetheless had living memories of chasing cows into the woods to keep the Yankees from confiscating them), and reached its turn-back point in Salisbury, North Carolina, where my mother grew up learning to hop trains in the hobo jungle in the days when the legends of Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie were still aborning.
From this distance, I can be glad the Yankees won, even in this age when we seem so determined to throw it all away.
But when I’m walking through a country churchyard down here, mulling the gravestones, there’s no way for it not to be a little bit personal.
Even from this distance.
This month is the thirtieth anniversary of my mother’s death. But you know what Faulkner said. In the South, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
And, as he did not quite say: “Would that it were.”
Rest of ya’ll will know what we know soon enough. I give it not more than a century and it will pass in the blink of an eye. Then you won’t care if the money’s no good either.
Enjoy this hard and bitterly won space while you can.
“What if Bruce Springsteen had gotten into a van and trailed Donald Trump to every campaign stop over the last four weeks (or even the last two). Imagine if every time Donald Trump set up to speak, Bruce got out of his van, strolled to a street corner or park a few blocks away, strapped on an acoustic guitar, and began to sing. Maybe he would sing songs about the working men and women who have always been his constituency, or maybe he would sign songs of Boardwalks or Vietnam, or maybe he would sing the old songs of freedom and unity that Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger sang.
Libby and I both stopped and looked at each other. “Seriously?” said my wife, a very disappointed Clinton supporter. She started gripping her soft Tomme Crayeuse a little too hard. By the time Ronnie Van Zant’s drawl started in with “Big wheels keep on turnin’,” everyone in the store was standing in shock. Brows were furrowed, people mumbled to each other. The song seemed to get louder as one of those New York moments happened, when everyone was thinking the exact the same thing.
One reason I’ve always tried to read across a broad spectrum of political views is so I don’t forget anyone’s existence. If I keep myself sufficiently up-to-date, I find the world holds very few surprises.
So none of this is surprising.
But boy is a lot of it dumb. I linked the full articles. You can read them and make your own judgments.
For starters, if Bruce Springsteen ever really was the voice of the working class that Tim Sommer seems to think he still is (and I’m not saying he wasn’t), he traded that status for standard Limousine Liberalism a long time ago. That no one ever worked harder at resisting the change (well, except maybe Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger) is proof of how seductive–maybe just plain inevitable–some changes are.
For Springsteen to connect with Donald Trump’s voters, would have meant sounding a lot like Donald Trump, no?
And who would trust him then?
Maybe Miranda Lambert’s fans?
Maybe. But who’s to say they aren’t Springsteen fans (i.e., not Trump supporters!) already?
If the audience Carl Wilson is writing for at Slate had any real “curiosity about what Trump-voting white women in Midwestern and Southern suburbs and small towns might cope with” they would have made Miranda’s idol and dear friend, Patty Loveless, a crossover superstar twenty years ago. And if the Country Music Association has lauded Lambert with six Female Vocalist of the Year awards (which is six times more than they awarded it to Loveless), it’s precisely because its voting members know that she goes down well at The Village Voice and all the other organs of hipsterism that the people who buy most of Lambert’s records don’t give a rip about. Right or wrong, everybody at Slate is pretty sure they know who Miranda Lambert voted for. With Patty Loveless–the singer who caught the spirit of the “White Death,” which drove Trump’s support more than the next ten factors combined, two decades before it started showing up in statistical studies–who could ever tell?
I mean, could you trust her to toe the line?
But then you never really know about these hillbillies, do you?
Which brings me to Ronnie Van Zant. The Federalist writer, David Marcus, attempts to explain that he personally gets it. There’s the usual stuff about how the origin of “Sweet Home Alabama” is way more complicated than is usually understood, etc. and more of the stuff you’d expect from someone who is more enlightened than his fellow good liberals because he thinks maybe the hicks have a point here and there, or that, at every least, the idea should be entertained. It’s all very familiar.
Per that “election” thing (going past Isaiah, who reminded us to “Put not your faith in princes”):
Point 1: Yes, there were many encomiums to how “historical’ it all was. I didn’t hear anyone say that no one else, living or dead, could have done what Donald Trump just did. This will become clearer next time around when Mark Cuban throws his hat in the Democratic ring and gets the usual four percent that Billionaire X gets when he tries to take over a mainstream political party.
Point 2: Trump’s campaign strategy was twofold and it never changed or wavered from day one. He bet that he could, by force of personality and riffing a catchy White Boy Blues on a few constant sorrows, hold the generic Republican coalition together and also pull in enough voters who came out to vote only for him to put him over the top. I suspect he didn’t do quite as well on either front as he hoped…but he still smashed the expectations of conventional wisdom. (Caveat: I encountered some of this reasoning in the fringes of the blog-world–i.e., what some people have started calling “the alt-right,”–but it was never put quite succinctly. Everybody I read either over-analyzed it or just yelled Trumpslide! at the top of their rhetorical lungs. In mainstream outlets it was never put coherently at all, being reduced to mutterings about Trump’s “hidden” voters, who no one allowed on television believed in until last night.
Point 3: Blacks and Latinos shifted a few percentage points in Trump’s favor vs. Romney four years ago. That shift is why he’s president-elect this morning. I wonder how long before Good Liberals start blaming them for averting paradise, the way Ralph Nader did in 2000?
Point 4: On the most pressing issues–immigration and the economy–Trump ran as a New Deal Democrat and Clinton as a Reagan Republican. (Woody Guthrie wrote “Deportees” about FDR’s Bracero program, not Reagan’s blanket amnesty, and it wasn’t Ms. Clinton who ran on bringing Glass-Steagall back and overturning NAFTA.)
Point 5: Trump understood that harping on “social” issues was meaningless. Yes, he had to mention them (usually when he was asked about them point blank) and yes, he got in hot water a time or two for not having developed a coherent position about abortion or gay rights or transgender bathrooms, etc. But social issues are adjudicated by Culture. Presidents play little role. That’s why the man who supposedly can’t let go of anything, kept letting go of his social-issue “mistakes” and turning them into here-and-gone twenty-four hour news cycles. Or, make that “news” cycles.
Point 6: Trump realized that, just like everyone else, present day conservatives—even church-going Evangelicals–have been roughened by the cultural collapse that has benefited him so enormously. Sorry, the little old lady in the second pew every Sunday morning at First Methodist might find talk of “pussy-grabbing” from a man on his third marriage distasteful, but she’s not shocked anymore. And just because she’s still too well bred to say, “Yeah, but will he punch those suckers in the face?” out loud doesn’t mean she’s not thinking it.
Point 7: The charismatic one always beats the stiff. Always.
Point 8: Having created a culture where “everyone has their own truth” should we be surprised by the success of a man who embodies the concept? Not that it really even does, but you didn’t think that was only going to help lonely weirdos, did you? Speaking as a lonely weirdo, get the hell up off of me.
Point 9: America’s enduring, subliminal yearning for a Royal Family has gone unremarked, no matter that Trump’s brood of tall, handsome children makes the Kennedys look like The Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga Sewing Circle, Book Review and Timing Association.* Camelot is taken, but don’t be surprised if Trump makes some like-minded concept stick to the national imagination like a squashed bug to a windshield. I have a sneaky feeling it will start with an aside at a press conference where President Trump starts riffing off the cuff about “This Shakespeare guy. I was reading him the other night and boy…I mean, I never had time to read him before I was leader of the free world. I was always too busy, but now I’ve read him and boy he’s really something. MacBeth, sure, who wants to be him? I say, Melania, don’t get any ideas! But Prince Hal? I see a lot of myself in that one…and Falstaff, too. What a guy! I feel like I’m both of them somehow. Sometimes I’m one, sometimes I’m the other. Sometimes I’m both at once and how great is that?” Also, don’t be surprised if the media spends a few days chaffing him for getting “off message”–they aren’t going to stop feeling superior to those they report on and report to just because they’ve been dumped under a manure truck…they’ll still come crawling back–before swallowing the narrative whole and referring to the impending Trump Dynasty as “Shakespearean Royalty” by default. Once that’s properly absorbed, liberals can start an endless stream of clever tweets about Ivanka going all Goneril on him.
Point 10: Bill Clinton has now accomplished his life’s one real goal, which was to humiliate his wife on the biggest possible stage. Wait, you thought all those well-timed “gaffes” in 2008 and 2016 were…unintentional? Please. I eagerly await the forthcoming Wikileaks release of the video showing Bubba and Trump, on the day they cooked this whole thing up, sharing a hooker and a cigar, perhaps in the Mar-A-Lago honeymoon suite where Micheal Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley once canoodled, while their mutual theme song plays….
…because there ain’t no way anybody’s gonna shut down the Lolita Express now.
*Folks, I didn’t think of that. J. Berry/R. Christian/D. Altfeld did, God bless them. For yea, verily, I say unto thee, we can all use a smile today.
And, yes, five will still get you ten that the Stones play the Inaugural. The second if not the first. By then, even Donald Trump will be able to afford them. And don’t worry, he won’t let them chicken out like they did at the Super Bowl. It won’t be “Satisfaction” and “Start Me Up” this time around. Maybe they don’t go all “Stray Cat Blues,” but I bet we at least get “Gimme Shelter.”(I’m thinking Beyonce for the Merry Clayton part. By then, he’ll be able to afford her, too.) Might even get “Brown Sugar.” Maybe with Bey going down on whatever Mick’s hanging between his legs and using for a member by then.
This year’s performing nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were announced last week. I always like to put in my two cents and I try to come up with a new approach each year. This year, with artists I have strong feelings about being in short supply on the ballot, I’ve decided to list the actual nominees next to the artist they most resemble (spiritually or temporally) who is more deserving.
You know. According to me.
And rock and roll. Let’s not forget rock and roll.
It’s a long ballot this year, so be sure to strap on your seat-belt. And please, if your sphincter is, as Ferris Bueller might have it, prone to making diamonds from charcoal, proceed with caution…
Actual Nominee: Bad Brains. I don’t really know much about them, but, listening on YouTube, they sound like every other hardcore band except the Minutemen. Like most such bands (not the Minutemen), they started out pretentious (jazz fusion according to Wikipedia and who is surprised?) until they found out where the true belief they could ,milk a ready-made cult career from lay. I only listened to a few cuts, but they certainly sound as if they always knew which side of the bread the butter was on.
Dream Ballot: The Minutemen. I listened to one of their albums all the way through once when I was in my twenties. I’m in my fifties now and I’m still waiting to reach an emotionally secure place before I listen again. I don’t know much about hardcore but I know real genius and the sound of nerves being scraped raw when I hear it.
Actual Nominee: Chaka Khan. Fine. Unlike most rock and roll narrativists, and most of the Hall’s voters, I’m not ready to forget about black people in the seventies. Speaking of which…
Dream Ballot:Rufus, featuring Chaka Khan. Yes, Chaka should be in. She should be in with her great interracial funk band, and they should pave the way for the other great funk bands, interracial (War, Hot Chocolate, KC and the Sunshine Band), and otherwise (Kool and the Gang, Ohio Players, Commodores). It seems like the more the nominating committee screws these things up, the more things stay the same.
Actual Nominee: Chic. They should be in. They’ve been consistently nominated for years but can’t overcome the disco hatred. No surprise there. Donna Summer had to die to get in. Even so, they aren’t the most deserving in this genre. That would be…
Dream Ballot:Barry White. Chic has been on the ballot ten times. You’d think they could nominate an even more popular, more innovative and more iconic artist from the same basic gene pool at least once. Come on people. Let’s at least try to make it look like we know what we’re doing!
Actual Nominee:Depeche Mode.Drone music. Admittedly, not my thing. Lots of hits in England and I don’t like to step on other people’s tastes, let alone their passions, but If somebody asked for indisputable evidence of why Britannia no longer rules the waves and soon won’t rule Britannia, I’d play them Depeche Mode music all night long. They could make up their own minds about whether that’s a good thing. Might be more useful if they at least pointed to something better, instead of a black hole.
Dream Ballot: Roxette. I was gonna go with Eurythmics, though they aren’t of the same ilk either (and might actually get on the real ballot some day). But, broadly, this is all Europop, and if there is going to be Europop, then there ought to at least be a fun single every now and then.
Actual Nominee: Electric Light Orchestra (ELO). The early lineup included Roy Wood, and the RRHOF is including Wood in the lineup that will be inducted if they get the votes. They aren’t including Roy Wood for what he did in ELO, which means they are tacitly acknowledging that this really ought to be…
Dream Ballot: The Move/ELO. They did this for Faces/Small Faces which actually made less sense (The Faces were a much cleaner break from the Small Faces than ELO were from the Move) but certainly opened up nominating possibilities. If you have two borderline deserving bands linked by shared membership, why not just put them together? We could have Free/Bad Company or Manfred Mann/Earth Band, maybe one or two others I’m not thinking of right now. It makes more sense than a lot of other sins of commission/omission presently on the Hall’s head. The Move were probably deserving on their own, despite their lack of success in America. ELO are marginally deserving anyway, and not just because of their massive success in America. Why oh why does the Hall continually shadow box. You had a good idea there a few years back. Run with it.
Actual Nominee: The J. Geils Band. It’s not that the J. Geils Band aren’t deserving. They are. And it’s getting late. They’ve been eligible for a long time. But if we’re mining the White Boy Stomp vein, then let’s go with my old standby…
Dream Ballot: Paul Revere and the Raiders. One of my criteria is that if you either helped define a major genre or helped invent an important minor one, you should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Raiders had a hand in inventing what came to be called garage rock. They certainly helped define it, ergo it doesn’t matter if you call garage rock major or minor. And they were the only band that fits well within even the narrowest definition of the ethos to have a major run of hits. That they’ve never been on the ballot for a hall that includes the Dave Clark Five and the Hollies (both deserving, but still) is silly, really. [Alternate pick: Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.]
Actual Nominee: Jane’s Addiction. A sort of thrash band with sort of Power Pop vocals. They started in the mid-eighties and you can feel them giving in to the awfulness of the times on just about any record I’ve heard (which I confess isn’t all that many, those I’ve heard not making me feel like I’ve missed anything except more dreariness, more unearned angst, more acceptance of defeat as the natural and permanent human condition we should all just learn to live with). Again, I realize these punk/alternative/alt metal//indie/thrash/etc. bands have had a profound impact on somebody’s life. I hate having to dis anybody’s taste. Still….nobody should take the world this hard unless they’ve been in a war.
Dream Ballot: Big Star. It doesn’t even matter who you (or I) like. The RRHOF has a responsibility to history. Putting Jane’s Addiction on a ballot where Big Star have never appeared amounts to criminal negligence.
Actual Nominee: Janet Jackson. No problem here. Miss Jackson had an enormous career and deserves to be in, maybe even on this ballot. But I’m curious…
Dream Ballot:Cyndi Lauper. Leaving aside why Dionne Warwick–Dionne Warwick!–has never appeared on a ballot, and sticking to the same era, why not do the all the way right thing and go with Cyndi? She made the best album of the eighties, was the last truly inventive vocalist of the rock and roll era (just before the suits allowed the machines to take over–and at a loss on the profit sheet, too–because the machines never talk back), and her acceptance speech would likely be even more priceless than her average interview.
Actual Nominee: Joan Baez. Inducting Joan Baez into the RRHOF as a performer would be a joke. She’s never made anything resembling a great rock and roll record. She’s a perfect candidate, however, for my long-running common sense proposal to have a “Contemporary Influence” category, especially now that the “Early Influence” category is running dry. Other worthy candidates for a concept which could acknowledge great artists who influenced their rock and roll contemporaries without being quite “of” them, would be oft-mentioned names like Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson (country), the Kingston Trio (folk), or even Barbra Streisand or Dean Martin (pop). It would have also been the right category for Miles Davis (already inducted as a performer) and a number of blues acts. But, if this category is not to exist, then at least go with….
Dream Ballot: Peter, Paul and Mary. They were the ones who put Bob Dylan on the charts, two years before the Byrds. If you think this–or Dylan becoming a major star–was merely inevitable, you weren’t quite paying attention. Woody Guthrie never made it…and don’t think he couldn’t have, if PP&M had been there to provide the bridge to the mainstream (whether he would have accepted it is another question, but my guess is he would have). Besides, unlike most of the people who would properly belong in a Contemporary Influence category, they actually made a great rock and roll record…which is not nothing, even if they just did it to prove they could to people who thought “I Dig Rock and Roll Music” was only a joke.
Actual Nominee: Joe Tex. No complaints. No arguments. Joe Tex is the last of the first-rank soul men not to be inducted. He should be.
Dream Ballot: Joe Tex.
Actual Nominee: Journey. I love, without irony or reservation, “Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin.” It’s a great record, period. And I don’t hate the stuff everybody else hates. i don’t listen to it, but I don’t run screaming from the room if it’s on either, or get a knot in my stomach that makes me want to start ranting about the decline and fall of civilization (and you know I can find endless reasons to do that). Plus, they sold a bajillion records. Still….Seriously?
Dream Ballot: Three Dog Night. The only reason Three Dog Night weren’t in a long time ago is they didn’t write their hits. If you follow along here, you know that’s not a good reason. Especially when, on average, their hits were a lot greater than Journey’s. (Alternate pick: Def Leppard…they have the advantage of being better than Journey and a more direct replacement. They just weren’t as good as Three Dog Night.)
Actual Nominee: Kraftwerk. Another good candidate for Contemporary Influence, especially since the Nominating Committee, which would control such a category, seems to love them. Again, this not being the case…
Dream Ballot: Roxy Music. Actually, I’m not the best person to make a case for them, but at least they had some hits and a tangential connection to rock and roll. This would also tacitly acknowledge and directly honor the fine work from Brian Eno’s and Bryan Ferry’s solo careers. And does anyone really believe they were less influential than Kraftwerk?
Actual Nominee: MC5. I let my MC5 CDs go in the great CD selloff of 2002. I liked them pretty well, but I never got around to buying them back. As one of the six great bands (The Stooges, Big Star, The Ramones, Mott the Hoople and one I’m about to mention were the others) who bridged the garage band ethos to punk, they should be in. I’d pick them last, mind you (The Stooges and the Ramones, the two I might have picked them ahead of, are already in), but they should be in. Some day. Meanwhile…
Dream Ballot: The New York Dolls. I wonder what might have happened if they had lasted longer. I always loved this performance on The Midnight Special (that they were even on tells you how great The Midnight Special was), where they start with about six fans and end with about eight. I don’t know how far another five years would have taken them…to a hundred maybe? a thousand?….but I bet they’d be in the Hall already if they had made it that far.
Actual Nominee: Pearl Jam. Of course they’ll get in. All that cred. They can’t miss. And that’s fine. They helped define grunge. That’s vital, maybe even major. Well deserving of induction. But here’s the thing…
Dream Ballot: The Shangri-Las. Just curious, but besides turning up the amps and groaning a lot, what did Eddie Vedder do in a quarter-century that Mary Weiss didn’t do, without a trace of his trademark stridency, in three minutes on her first hit? What new place did he get to? Go ahead. Explain it to me. Please….
[NOTE: For any of my fellow Shangs’ aficionados, this link contains an intro I’ve never heard before, plus the extended finale that I’ve linked in the past. It’s the story that never ends.]
Actual Nominee: Steppenwolf. Is Biker Rock really a genre? Is introducing the phrase “heavy metal” to the world enough, in and of itself, to ensure enshrinement? I’m not sure, but if either of these be the case, Steppenwolf should be voted in immediately. Just in case it’s otherwise…
Dream Ballot: Lee Michaels. Why not? If we’ve come this far down the where-can-we-find-more-White-Boys-to-nominate road, aren’t we just messing with people? (Alternate pick: The Guess Who.)
Actual Nominee: The Cars. Cheap Trick got in last year and it’s nice to see to see Power Pop getting some love. The Cars were probably also the most successful New Wave band after Blondie (already in), so I’d always consider voting for them. However…
Dream Ballot: Raspberries. If you really started and/or mainstreamed the Power Pop thing (to the extent that somebody was going to be forced to give it a name), and if your best records are better than anything the thing produced afterwards (well, except for the Go-Go’s maybe), and your front man was the biggest single talent in the whole history of the thing, then shouldn’t you be first in line?
Actual Nominee: The Zombies. I like the Zombies plenty. But the depth of the Nominating Committee’s love for them is a little odd. A few great singles and a cult album (Odessey and Oracle) that has traveled the classic critical journey once outlined by Malcolm Cowley (it boiled down to everything now underrated will eventually be overrated and vice versa) is a borderline HOF career at best.
Dream Ballot: Manfred Mann. Especially if you include all its incarnations (and after the Hall-approved Faces/Small Faces induction, why wouldn’t you?), the never-nominated Manfreds are more deserving on every level. The first version made greater singles and more of them. The second version morphed into Bob Dylan’s favorite interpreters of his music and, along the way, made an album (called The Mighty Quinn in the U.S.) which sounds better to these ears than Odessey and Oracle ever did. Then the third and fourth versions (called Chapter Three and Earth Band) became long running jazz fusion/classic rock troupers. (And yeah, I love their “Blinded By the Light” in both its single and album versions. We all have our heresies.) Mann’s greatest genius was for discovering standout vocalists to sell his concepts every step of the way. And, whatever gets played from the stage of next year’s induction ceremony, I bet it won’t be as good as this…
Actual Nominee: Tupac Shakur. If this is going to re-open the door for pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa or LL Cool J or Eric B. and Rakim, then fine and dandy. They’ve all been on the ballot before. I hope they won’t be forgotten in the coming years, when pressure to induct more modern hip-hop acts grows and when five will get you twenty the Hall’s obvious but never acknowledged penchant for quotas and tokenism remains firmly in place. Still, for me…
Dream Ballot: Naughty By Nature. Yes, even above all the rest. I still think “O.P.P.” is the greatest hip-hop record. I still think “Mourn You Til I Join You,” is the greatest tribute record in a genre that has required far too many. I still think “How will I do it, how will I make it? I won’t, that’s how,” is the finest rap line, (just ahead of Ice-T’s “How can there be justice on stolen land?”) Plenty of early rockabilly stars made it in on less (and deservedly). So sue me.
Actual Nominee: Yes. Prog rock. Yes, of course. That will be very useful in the days to come. Most helpful.
Dream Ballot: Fairport Convention. This year, of all years, we really should find every excuse to listen close. Admittedly, next year promises to be worse.
Happy Holidays ya’ll…Don’t let the Grim Reaper get ya’!
I’m a Mellencamp fan and I’d heard good things about this when it came out, but it was only a year or so back that I acquired it. I gave it a couple of cursory listens and then filed it away as a subject for future investigation.
The future came this week and it hit me upside the head, maybe just about the time Mellencamp’s po’ boy loner–the kind of weary cliche that makes me throw up every defense I have and which no previous singer has so completely broken down–sings about the wife who takes a frying pan upside his head.
Except she isn’t his wife. She’s a woman he’s just spotted her on the street somewhere and exchanged a friendly glance with before spending a few moments describing to the listener–as if they’ve already happened–all the things he could imagine happening if that friendly glance led to matrimony and such. Naturally, by the end of the song, he’s ready to move on, leaving all the possibilities you thought were realities unexplored.
Upon the album’s release, Mellencamp got a lot of publicity out of its gimmick, which was recording the thirteen tracks he had written–every one of which sounds like a folk song or a blues pulled from the bottom of a stack of 78s no one ever heard of, let alone heard out loud–in the Sun Studio, the San Antonio hotel where Robert Johnson was recorded, and a slavery-era church in Savannah, Georgia.
As Greil Marcus and a few others pointed out at the time, the gimmick shouldn’t work but does, because it doesn’t feel like a gimmick. What nobody seems to have gotten around to fully explaining (I can’t say I read every review, but I read a bunch), is just why it doesn’t feel that way, which is because it’s the boldest example of a common conceit–that rare reach that actually qualifies as something nobody pulled off, or probably even thought of, before.
Starting somewhere in the mid-sixties–maybe with the Beach Boys’ Party! LP from 1965, there have been constant attempts of reach back to a mythic past, sometimes near, sometimes distant, and imagine what might have been if rock and roll had gone in a slightly different direction. At its best, in the early music of the Band, or Party! itself, this approach could be revelatory and break open spaces that would have otherwise lain fallow. At its worst, which was most of the time, it could be soul-crushing. Somewhere in between, it could be anything from heartfelt and detailed enough to qualify as honorable, smile-inducing homage (the best work of Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids or Tracey Ullman) to earnest folk music (where I’ve always slotted the strain in Bruce Springsteen’s music that began, and peaked, with Nebraska).
Some of this music got called bold because it seemed to exist in a world where rock and roll never happened. Most of it existed only because rock and roll happened.
On No Better Than This, Mellencamp stretches both ideas past their logical extremes: In the real world, the one we actually live in, he’s a man who could never have been a star without rock and roll because no world but this one would have had him. In the world he creates on this record, he uses his real-world status to imagine–and perfect–a world not where rock and roll never happened (been done) but one where rock and roll is just about to happen. That difference, once it locks in, makes the difference. This week, starting with a casual listen that was different from my previous listenings because I put on headphones, I began to suspect something was up about midway through the first song. By the time Mellencamp closed with a wry chuckle, twelve and a half songs later, I had a new obsession, the kind that rarely happens to me anymore, because I almost never need to listen to something until I figure it out.
The leap between this and every bit of proto, in-the-moment, or retro Americana I’ve ever heard is that, in one key respect, Mellencamp remains who he is. He’s reaching back to the early fifties, not as a star-in-the-making, some great lost voice who would have taken rock and roll in a whole new direction if only some visionary producer or enlightened audience had understood his genius, but as a gifted journeyman with his own ideas about how things should be. He hasn’t gone back in time to be Woody Guthrie or LIttle Richard. He’s gone back to be Harmonica Frank or Lowell Fulson, or, better yet, a forgotten contemporary, with his own little weird niche, which may (Fulson) or may not (Harmonica Frank) one day lead to a modest career.
In other words Mellencamp has imagined the fix he’d be in if rock and roll hadn’t exploded into something that could make somebody like John Mellencamp a star.
How consciously he did this I don’t know, but sometimes–quite often really–the artist knows better than the man. This is an album that keeps asking: “What if this had been all there was?” and then supplies its own answer. Which is along the lines of: “We think we’re lucky we didn’t have to find out…but are we?”
Now you know we’re lucky (i.e. “better off”). And I know we’re lucky. And John Mellencamp sure knows we’re lucky.
But the guy on the record isn’t so sure. And for the length of this record, he stood in the place where John Mellencamp used to be.
I’m not sure any album has ever asked and answered this path-not-taken question in quite the same way before. More than thirty years into a career that could never have happened unless we, and he, have been very lucky indeed, John Mellencamp dared to raise the question of his own worth and the worth of the world we’ve made since rock and roll, with its unbounded promise, first danced out of the shadows.
And I’m going to play you a track now, but I guarantee there is no way to comprehend how exhilarating and disturbing this eerily quiet “mono” music is without getting hold of the album and finding some zone quiet enough and slow enough to absorb it whole, without interference from the modern world.
Introducing a new category, “Not Quite Random Favorites”:
Beginning with My Favorite Fantasy Album, just beating out Al Green Sings the Delta Blues, which should have occurred along about 1978.
The Shangri-Las Do Dylan (which should have occurred along about 1966)
Preferably with this for the cover photo.
Inevitably, of course, the humorless plugs in legal and marketing would have liaisoned and changed the title to The Shangri-Las Sing Bob Dylan’s Golden Hits or something. No matter. I would have settled for any compromise if it meant hearing Mary Weiss take on “I Want You,” which she once listed as one of her ten favorite records.
As for how the enlightened would have dealt with any of that (under any title or any cover), you can check this fascinating little time capsule from The Village Voice published in the immediate aftermath of Dylan “going electric” to a chorus of boos at Newport in 1965. (Unfortunately, you have to squint and read the article as a reproduction. I found it worth the effort but in case you don’t here’s the relevant statement: “The irony of the folklorists and their parochial ire at Dylan’s musical transgressions is that he is not Guthrie or the Shangri-Las, but this generation’s most awesome talent. And in 60 years you will read scholarly papers about his themes (terror, release) and the images (so similar to the disharmonies and exaggerations of a William Burroughs). And those learned men will be benefited by the most comprehensive set of readings that any poet ever provided.”
Of course, the Shangs’ reference is buried in contemporary hipster post-ironic irony (or something along those lines) delivered in the style which exists so that any inferred meaning can be accepted or denied as the situation calls for.
Meaning one is going out on a limb to say for absolute certain that it’s not a compliment.
Believe me. It’s not a compliment.
One of these days I’ll write about Dylan’s version of “Talkin’ World War III Blues” from Volume 6 of his official bootleg series, which captures his concert at the Philharmonic in the fall of 1964 (one of the greatest concert recordings ever, incidentally). That includes the bit where he slapped the Shangri-Las and Martha and the Vandellas up side the head and got one of the biggest laughs of the night. It may, among other things, explain why a Village Voice writer would not-so-randomly pull the Shangri-Las out of the air and stick them between Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. But for now, I’ll just dream on…and then look at things like this and wonder who the real revolutionaries were. (As Weiss once said about the London rivalry between the Mods and the Rockers: “I got off the plane dressed in black leather. They definitely knew where I stood!” Got her clothes in the Village by the way.)
I spent Friday night watching back-to-back PBS broadcasts of ceremonies honoring the last two Gershwin Award winners. First up was this year’s honoree, Billy Joel, being feted at Constitution Hall. Second was a re-broadcast of an earlier shindig thrown for last year’s winner Carole King at the White House.
The star of King’s tribute was King herself, equally affecting whether she was beaming at the other performers from her front row seat, giving her acceptance speech, or rocking the house.
Joel’s tribute was, er, nice.
Amongst the stuff you always have to put up with at these things, there were genuinely nice performances from Boyz II Men, LeAnn Rimes, Natalie Maines, Joel himself.
All very apropo.
And, right in the middle of all that, John Mellencamp dropped by, wearing his Down-From-the-Mountain coat, which has been hanging on his shoulders–literally and figuratively–for so long it’s apparently turned into a second skin. I mean, I sure as hell couldn’t tell him from Woody Guthrie and that’s saying a little something, because Woody never got invited to this sort of thing.
Has he earned that sort of status?
Well, he was there to remind a room full of swells that the purely economic blight that settled over the land in the “go-go” eighties is with us still. I don’t know whose idea that was–Billy Joel, John Mellencamp, Jehovah. But, if the point was to emphasize the ultimate emptiness of all that pomp and circumstance, somebody knew what they were doing.
There’s no way to gauge the full impact of this outside of its context: the singer striding into the hall, saying his piece, ripping the heart from underneath a song that, on record, was, frankly, as slick a piece of pure product as ever came down the pike, holding it up for all to see, then–having cut the applause in half–walking off without looking back (apparently he walked straight out of the building, because he was noticeably absent from the standard-issue big finale where everybody gets on stage at once and sings the honoree’s signature tune)