the mist of a memory


In a voice that’s more like a sleepy bulltoad’s than ever, all croaks and wrinkles that make it appropriate for the Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James songs he’s always been drawn to, John Sebastian sang “Deep Purple” at the City Winery, accompanied by David Grisman on mandolin. He’s anecdotally drawn the line between “Deep Purple” and the relaxed little classic “Daydream” that he wrote for The Lovin’ Spoonful, and in this new incarnation it did sound like it could have been an outtake from the album named after that hit from the spring of ’66. “Over sleepy garden walls” is a phrase Sebastian could’ve written, and as steeped in folk and blues as the Spoonful were, it occurred to me that there were moments in that wonderful band’s career that also connect to the pop tradition of writers like Mitchell Parish (who penned the lyrics to “Deep Purple,” as well as “Stardust,” “Stars Fell On Alabama,” “Volare” and “Moonlight Serenade”), Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer.

We think of Tin Pan Alley-era pop as being so cosmopolitan, so New York, so, let’s face it, Jewish (with the notable exception of Cole Porter), but there was this other stream, with its lazy rivers and old mills, rocking chairs and buttermilk skies. At the Winery gig, John pointed out how a riff he learned from John Hurt somehow became the Spoonful’s “Lovin’ You — country-blues was a big part of the band’s DNA — but I also hear some Carmichael and Mercer in Sebastian songs like “Warm Baby,” “Day Blues,” “Boredom” and “Rain On The Roof.”

Mitchell Parish (one of those Jewish lyricists, albeit one whose Lithuanian family lived for a while in Louisiana) attached his words for “Deep Purple” to a melody by Peter DeRose, and like his “Stardust” — with its verse that starts out describing the “purple dusk of twilight time” — it’s about loss and memory. “Stardust” is all aching recollection: the stars, the songs (“the melody haunts my reverie”), the nightingale, the roses, everything (as in “Deep Purple,” there’s a garden wall) reminds the singer, dreaming in vain, that the nights are lonely. “Stardust” is nearly all set-up: here’s what’s going on, and here’s why I’m so bereft. Most singers dive right into “Deep Purple” without setting the scene with a verse. I didn’t even know it had one until I came across the version by a singer named Turner Layton. “Across the years,” he sings, “you come to me at twilight” (this really is a close relative of “Stardust”), like it’s a visitation from the departed. Now it’s more than a lost-love song; there’s something haunting about it that’s missing from the records made in the big band years (Jimmy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Paul Whiteman, Glenn Miller, Bing Crosby, Larry Clinton’s Orchestra with Bea Wain all did it around 1939 after words were put to it), like there was a deeper layer of longing.

“Deep Purple” was a huge hit when the country was on the brink of WWII, and like so many songs from that time, underneath the smooth coating was the fear of separation: you’re gone, I’m alone, I miss you. Then the song was picked up again. In 1949, there was a recording by The Ravens, lead vocal by the impossibly dark bass voice of Jimmy Ricks, almost imperceptibly backed by the other guys for the first half of the song, and then Maithe Marshall’s careening tenor takes over to wrap things up; it’s a dramatic musical split. Other versions followed: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, not so much screamin’ as croonin’ in this case, not his vocal wheelhouse, and a big, too big some might say, rendering by a late (1957) edition of Billy Ward and His Dominoes on Liberty (Gene Mumford on Jackie Wilsonesque lead), following directly on the lush path of their version of “Stardust” (both singles made the top 20).

Nino Tempo and April Stevens, a brother-and-sister act that’d been kicking around for a while, concocted one of those dopey-yet-irresistible standard-tune transformations that popped up all over the place in the early ‘60s: “Blue Moon” by The Marcels, “Heart and Soul” by The Cleftones, “Linda” by Jan & Dean…”Deep Purple” by Nino and April had almost nothing in common with any other “Deep Purple” that had ever come before (the same could be said about The Marcels, The Cleftones and Jan & Dean: fidelity to the source was a non-issue). It sounded tossed-off, but nothing could’ve stopped it from being a hit, and it reached #1 in November 1963. It also won a Grammy Award for Best Rock & Roll Recording. And, naturally, there were sequels, so Nino & April got around to doing a similar variation on “Stardust,” by which point (February 1964) the clock had run out on this particular brand of “Rock & Roll.”

But John Sebastian had heard their take on “Deep Purple” (how could he not have?), he had it in mind when he wrote “Daydream,” and the other night, he brought it around again. It was a bluer shade of “Deep Purple,” intimate and a little worn, like the orchestrated version Brian Wilson did for the abandoned Adult Child album back in 1977. “Though you’re gone,” the song says, “your love lives on when moonlight beams.” Moonlight can do that to you, and so can songs.

“the most deeply moving noise ever produced by the human spirit”


Henry, the playwright in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, goes on at some length and brilliance, about words, their power and meaning, how the way they’re put together matters. One real thing the play is about is language. Another is what’s beyond language. In his first scene, Henry (played by Ewan McGregor in the new Broadway production) is going through his records; he’s been asked to appear on Desert Island Discs, and he’s agonizing about whether his taste is too lowbrow. It turns out that the records he truly loves are, in a sense, gibberish: “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um,” the version by Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders, “Da Doo Ron Ron” by The Crystals,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” by The Righteous Brothers, with its none-too-articulate chorus. “You’ve lost that lovin’ feeling, now it’s gone, gone, gone, whoa-oh-oh-oh.” The phrase (it’s not even a phrase, just a succession of syllables) “Da Doo Ron Ron” means nothing. When Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry were writing it, they were going to come up with actual words for the chorus eventually, until it became clear revisions were unnecessary. At the curtain call of this The Real Thing, the song we hear is that emotionally eloquent, if verbally cryptic, Crystals record.

Unlike in any other production I’ve seen (this one makes four), the members of the cast, which includes Maggie Gyllenhaal and Cynthia Nixon, do some singing of their own. As you enter the theater, the sound system is playing records written and produced by Smokey Robinson (The Marvellettes, Mary Wells), and then the actors come out and sing his “I’ll Be In Trouble” before getting around to speaking any of Stoppard’s words. Later on, they harmonize, shakily but with enthusiasm, on “There’s A Kind of Hush,” a song that was a hit for Herman’s Hermits and later for The Carpenters. “A kind of hush.” I love that, the unspecificity of it stuck in the middle of a play that has so much to say about what can be verbally expressed and what’s too hard to untangle.

“So listen very carefully/Closer now and you will see what I mean”

If you know the song, you know how lightweight and whimsical it is, and how in place of an instrumental break (about 1:20 into the Hermits’ version), Peter Noone just goes “la la la la la la la” for a while. Sometimes — ok, a lot of the time — the best pop music is a short burst of silliness. Henry’s Desert Island Discs dilemma is that he doesn’t like the type of pop music it’s ok for intellectual playwrights to like. Pink Floyd, for example. (Unlike Henry, Stoppard is a big Floyd guy, and recently wrote a radio play about Dark Side of The Moon.) Henry likes singles. Brenda Lee, The Everly Brothers, The Hollies, Neil Sedaka. The Real Thing isn’t a jukebox play, but pop is central to it, and having the actors form an impromptu, unrelated-to-the-story pop group (McGregor’s sung on stage before, as Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls in London, and Gyllenhaal played a singer in the indie movie Happy Endings) is a new way of showing how the simplest songs, like “I’m Into Something Good,” can be so unshakable.

In the preview I caught, some last-minute song switching had been necessitated by, I gather, the composer of “I’m A Believer” (that would be Neil Diamond) withholding permission. A shame, because The Monkees’ record works so perfectly in that play-ending slot, where it’s been since The Real Thing premiered in London in 1982. In its place, at least for the time being, was “God Only Knows,” a song I love hearing in most circumstances, but here’s one place where it felt like a lesser resolution. There’s something about the wide-eyed sparkle of “I’m A Believer,” the sheer adolescence of it, that made it such a zingy coda to all the verbal sparring about love, fidelity, deception and messy adult stuff that Stoppard’s crafted for his characters. For all that “God Only Knows” may be, it’s not giddy, in a pop way. Not like “I’m A Believer” is, or “I’m Into Something Good,” or “(Til) I Kissed You” by Henry’s beloved Everly Brothers. Even though it isn’t in the play, I’d imagine that’d be one of his favorites, a 45 RPM single on the London label in the U.K., a record for any desert island.

they’re playing “oh yeah” on the radio


“Oh Yeah” by Roxy Music is a song that was never a “hit” about a fictional song called “Oh Yeah,” and when Bryan Ferry performs it live, it gets an ecstatic response, as though both the Roxy Music song and the song within the Roxy Music song are as part of pop music culture as, say, “Tracks of My Tears.” The song the audience knows and the song it imagines merge: “Oh Yeah” the record is now almost 35 years old, and its subject is how songs can linger, the emotions they evoke. The singer, Ferry, is in his car, and the internal “Oh Yeah” comes on the radio “with a rhythm of rhyming guitars” (it’s not the words of the song that move him, but the sound of it), and he recalls a summer — how recent or distant, we don’t know — when it became “our song.” He and his summer love are separated, he’s crying, and the only reason you can’t hear his tears is that “Oh Yeah” is drowning them out.

In 2014, one assumes, there are people at the Bryan Ferry concert for whom Roxy Music’s “Oh Yeah” was “our song.” The crowd is mostly in the 45-60 year old range, so when Flesh + Blood (the album with “Oh Yeah”) came out, they were likely in the throes of high school/college romances, in thrall to the sexy mood of Roxy Music. They’re at this concert in part to get back in touch with that feeling. Avalon, the band’s acknowledged make-out classic (the one with “More Than This” and “Take A Chance With Me”), came a couple of years later. A lot of sex was had to the Roxy Music of the early 1980s, and to Ferry’s post-Avalon solo music (“Slave To Love” and “Don’t Stop The Dance” from Boys and Girls). There may well have been some nostalgic sex on the Upper West Side after Ferry’s show at the Beacon.

“Oh Yeah” — and “More Than This,” “Dance Away,” “Over You” and most of the songs we think of as Roxy Music hits — were barely played on the radio. None of those records so much as scraped the pop Top 100. As a solo artist, Ferry scored one almost-Top 30 single (“Kiss and Tell” from the movie Bright Lights, Big City). Over time, Avalon became Roxy’s only platinum or gold album, but it never rose higher than #53 on the LP chart, and Boys and Girls was Ferry’s only gold album (peak: #63). But ask: would you rather have Roxy Music’s body of work and place in the historical scheme of things or Kansas’s, with their eight consecutive gold albums? Or REO Speedwagon’s? If you were a record company, whose catalog would you rather be stashed in your vault?

Sales and chart numbers stop mattering after a while and what counts is how much the music you made really mattered to the people it reached. That’s why albums by The Velvet Underground that sold barely anything when they were first released are now being lovingly and elaborately repackaged and expanded. That’s why there’s a complete Roxy Music boxed set with bonus cuts, B-sides, remixes. Because the audience that cares about them really cares. However you found your way into the world of Roxy Music, however old you were, whether you have a white-label promo copy of For Your Pleasure (subtitled The Second Roxy Music Album) on Warner Brothers, or didn’t catch up until Bill Murray sang “More Than This” in Lost In Translation, it spoke a language you grasped.

It would’ve been nice if “Oh Yeah” had been a big hit in 1980 (it was in the U.K., of course: #5, like the album’s first single, “Over You,” and the album went to #1). And I think it should be covered now, because then the “Oh Yeah” within the song could be Roxy Music’s “Oh Yeah,” a song about itself, a memory about a memory.

music for dummies

Kim Cattrall and Andrew McCarthy in Mannequin

It doesn’t look as though Kristen Wiig is up for a sequel to Bridesmaids, which given the amount of cash that would be thrown at her feet is a position of admirable restraint, but midway through The Skeleton Twins she and Bill Hader have a routine that rivals the Wiig-Maya Rudolph “Hold On” lip-sync duet. Now I’m up for Wiig including one of these scenes in every movie she does, even though that’s unfeasible (but how great would it be if she were one of the female Ghostbusters in the coming reboot and there were an opportunity for her and her fellow GB’s to lip-sync the Ray Parker Jr. title song?). In The Skeleton Twins, the song is Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” like “Hold On” a archetypical piece of empowered cheese from that late-’80s/early ‘90s era that was filled with pop bombast.

I read an article this week on the Rolling Stone website that calls 1984 pop’s greatest year and did a double-take: that “8” had to have been a typo, right? No, the piece is serious. There apparently is a strain of real 1980s nostalgia, some of it good (The Replacements), some of it semi-ironic (Hall & Oates), some of it just baffling. ‘84 was ok, I suppose – Purple Rain, Like A Virgin and all that — but Born In The U.S.A. is my least-played 20th century Springsteen album because it sounds so much like the 1980s, beefed-up and synthetic. It was tough for anyone, Dylan (Knocked Out Loaded), The Stones (Dirty Work), McCartney (‘84’s Give My Regards To Broad Street), Stevie Wonder (‘84’s “I Just Called To Say I Love You”) to get out of the ‘80s with their artistic reputation untainted (Springsteen recovered with Tunnel of Love). 1984 was the year of Footloose, “Radio Ga Ga,” Barry Manilow singing Jim Steinman, Toto and Lionel Richie. Rolling Stone thinks it’s the greatest pop year ever. Ponder for a moment.

But back to The Skeleton Twins, and Starship. When music nerds debate what rock star with bona fide credibility did the best job of sabotaging a distinguished career, the topic usually circles around to Rod Stewart, and there’s a case to be made, especially since he sleepwalked through standards on a series of albums that, if anything, made you forgive his disco phase as mere youthful folly. My nominee is Grace Slick. Granted, her career was not as outstanding as Stewart’s — there’s no Gasoline Alley or Every Picture Tells A Story in her solo catalog, and much of Jefferson Airplane/Starship’s discography hasn’t weathered the decades that well — but there was a moment, around 1967-1969, when she was arguably the biggest female artist in rock. Her voice was icy, but flexible, all steely restraint while Janis Joplin’s was filled with swagger. In another era, Slick might have wandered up to North Beach to sing cool jazz, and made men weak.

Unlike Janis, Grace didn’t have to carry all the weight: the Airplane had multiple personalities with different musical agendas. When the band was firing, it really was, as the kids would say, a trip. That only lasted a few years, and then it all went to splinters, and in the ‘70s it was anyone’s guess who was in the Airplane/Starship at any given time: the band went through something like a half-dozen personnel permutations in seven years. By the time of The Greatest Pop Year Ever, Jefferson Starship was recording their last “Jefferson” album (Nuclear Furniture), and Grace had released the solo album Software. You don’t know those albums, nor should you want to.

The Starship album No Protection came out two decades after the Airplane broke through in the Summer of Love (give it up for a woman in her late forties who could hang in there in the era of MTV), and here’s where “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” comes into the picture, featured on that LP and on the soundtrack to the film Mannequin. This is what 1987 was like. A romantic comedy in which the titular character (well, not “character,” exactly, window display), played by Kim Cattrall, magically comes to life to hang out with Andrew McCarthy. And James Spader is in it. Starship’s two lead singers, Grace Slick and Mickey Thomas (imagine Steve Perry crossed with Michael Bolton), bolstered by Narada Michael Walden’s arena-synth-rock production, shout the (Oscar-nominated!) Albert Hammond-Diane Warren song at each other:

Let them say we’re crazy, I don’t care about that
Put your hand in my hand, baby, don’t ever look back

Assume that this is a declaration of mutual love between a boy and a department-store dummy: “If this world runs out of lovers, we’ll still have each other.” First of all, was there some impending lover-depletion in 1987? And to get analytical for a second, wouldn’t falling for a woman molded out of plastic be a sign of intimacy issues? Have you ever seen an unclothed mannequin?

Wiig and Hader’s choreographed “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” is a goofy highpoint of The Skeleton Twins, and it’s an example of how the cultural wheel spins: if the film catches on, expect the song to return to high rotation at a karaoke bar near you. I didn’t think I’d ever enjoy hearing the Starship record, or that I’d ever be doing a Starship search on YouTube and reliving the moment in musical history when Grace Slick and Kim Cattrall intersected. I’m fairly certain that Slick would rather be remembered for her contributions to Crown of Creation than for anything on No Protection, but pop doesn’t work that way. Even your most embarrassing incidents are up for grabs. Starship chased a pop hit, caught one, and now it’s back. Everyone sing along, “And we can build this dream together….”.

let’s dig the scene and have our fling with it


Once in a while, The Dick Van Dyke Show would find an excuse for its two stars — Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore — to break out in song, as though it wasn’t charming enough to watch Rob & Laura Petrie of New Rochelle play the sexiest couple on TV. Rob had the most enviable of lives, writing sketches for The Alan Brady Show in Manhattan, going home to Laura, whom he met when she was a teenaged hoofer in a U.S.O. revue. Their courtship began with a song-and-dance number, “You Wonderful You,” and as a settled suburban husband and wife, somehow they managed to bust out the tunes at the drop of a hat. The Dick Van Dyke Show is where I first heard “The Doodling Song” (I later found out that Peggy Lee and Blossom Dearie had cut in on disc), and when Jackie Cain, of the singing duo Jackie and Roy, passed away earlier this week, the first thing that crossed my mind was Rob and Laura’s version of Rodgers & Hart’s “Mountain Greenery.” Someone on the DVD staff was obviously pretty clued-in, because the Petries’ arrangement was modeled very closely on the ‘50s recording by Jackie and Roy.

Jackie Cain and Roy Kral were just cool enough. They weren’t as dazzlingly inventive as Lambert, Hendricks and Ross (who were like the Nichols & May of vocal jazz interplay), but they could take some surprising turns, and their records all sound filled with affection and playfulness, without the square, staged musical banter of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. You believed them as a couple, the way you bought into Rob and Laura: look at Jackie and Roy on the front and back cover of their By Jupiter & Girl Crazy album on Roulette. She’s barely draped in flowing light blue in one shot, trying to seduce his indifferent gladiator, and on the flip side, they’re a pair of cowpokes. It all should come off as ultra-corny, but somehow it doesn’t. It’s like they’re at some costume party, and you imagine that those costumes might come into play in imaginative ways later that night.


It’s a nutty discography; in the ‘60s, like so many singers who were trying to keep up, they zig-zagged all over the place, into bossa nova (“Samba Triste” and “Corcovado” on Verve’s Lovesick), covers of contemporary tunes by The Beatles (six Lennon-McCartney songs on Changes), even an album on Capitol called Grass (“The Electric Jackie & Roy”: more L-McC, plus Paul Simon, the Gibbs…). As those things go, they aren’t embarrassing, because they still have the low-key warmth of the earlier records, and on CTI’s Time and Love (1972), they nestle into a comfortable jazz-pop zone, but they aren’t the places to begin with Jackie and Roy. Since they bopped around from label to label, compiling something definitive would be a pain (although now Universal has the ABC-Paramount, Capitol, Verve and CTI stuff under their roof, which leaves Roulette and Columbia material to reckon with). Where you want to go is to the swinging, flirty ‘50s/brink-of-the-’60s sides.

There’s a whole Columbia LP of Andre and Dory Previn compositions (Like Sing, with “Sing Me An Abstract Song”) that’s worth seeking out, and some of J&R’s most Petrie-ish LP’s have been coupled for download, so you can easily grab such numbers as “Kiss and Run,” “How Are You Fixed For Love?,” “Fun Life” (“Let’s dig the scene and have our fling with it,” Jackie sings, “Because we’re young, let’s ding-a-ling with it”),” “Ooh! That Kiss,” “You Smell So Good” and “I Love You Real.” It was a sort of swank-hip thing, the straight-looking (until the inevitable later-’60s sideburns) guy at the piano, the girl who brought some pow to the affair. In the Jackie Cain NY Times’ obit, Kral is quoted as saying, “She was a voluptuous blonde, right out of high school. She was very convincing.” But the piece goes on to say that it was Cain who made the big move: “I leaned over and kissed him. A big, juicy wet one.” What you still hear in the records Jackie and Roy made is that matter-of-fact chemistry, their voices teasing each other. They were the musical Rob and Laura, all right. Just two crazy people together.

let the boys rock and roll

WKDA Nashville Concert Poster

The event at NYU’s Provincetown Playhouse was formally billed as a Songwriters Hall of Fame Master Session, but when it concluded with John Sebastian playing harmonica as Felix Cavaliere sang “Groovin’” from behind his keyboard, not a few older attendees were subtly dabbing away tears, like guys dragged by their dates to see The Fault In Our Stars. It was that kind of night; about a hundred people gathered in lower Manhattan, mere steps from where the Night Owl cafe once stood, to watch the singer-songwriters from The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Rascals tell stories to interviewer Phil Galdston. It went on for two hours, and on the street afterwards, the gaggle of music geeks were spinning with anecdotes and memories: how they’d played in teenage bands who did Spoonful and Rascals covers; how they first saw The Spoonful at a Murray The K Big Holiday Show where the group shared the bill with almost every major Motown act, or even before that when they were down the block at the Night Owl; how they (ok, I) first heard of The Rascals when my parents came home from a Night In The City at the Phone Booth or Harlow’s, bringing back a big red and white “Rascals” button that is still in a box of tchotchkes.

What was striking about this Master Session — and in an academic sense that’s what it was, albeit with quite an emotional component — was that it underlined how much of the music that came out in the mid-‘60s was a result of how much the bands were paying attention to each other, and to what was swirling around them. As Felix mentioned, radio stations couldn’t not play a new Beatles single, no matter how out-there it was, so they had infinite freedom to experiment, and that license was handed down to groups like the Spoonful and the Rascals.

You could get a waltz-with-accordion on the air (“How Can I Be Sure”), use sound effects for texture (“”Summer In The City,” “Groovin’”), draw on Motown (Felix demonstrated how much the groove on “Lonely Too Long” owed to The Temptations) or vintage folk and jug band music (John nicked a small phrase in “Younger Girl” from a Gus Cannon song). There was so much creative liberty, even for pop groups that wanted to get singles in the top 40 (the two bands had a baker’s dozen top 10 hits between them) and perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. Everyone knew what everyone else was up to, and knew that they’d all better step it up. McCartney answered “Daydream” with “Good Day Sunshine,” and Galdston pointed out that Brian Wilson was inspired to write “God Only Knows” by Sebastian’s “You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice.” Even John was surprised to hear that, but when he picked up a guitar to sing it, with Felix backing him up on keyboards and vocals, it made perfect sense. You can know a song inside out for fifty years, and still find out something new about it.

Sebastian showed what connects “Daydream” to “Deep Purple,” and sang “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind” the way he’d heard it originally: he’d always thought the record was missing some Huey “Piano” Smith-ish piano, so Cavaliere provided that missing component. And he sang the first verse of the semi-lost track “Pow!” (there’s a moment I never thought I’d witness), written for Woody Allen’s first movie, What’s Up, Tiger Lily? The names came flying: Tim Hardin, Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin at Atlantic, Artie Ripp at Kama Sutra, Fritz Richmond (who gave Sebastian’s band its name when John told him the band he was forming combined elements of Chuck Berry and Mississippi John Hurt), Cass Elliot, Joey Dee. The Albert Hotel, where the Spoonful rehearsed, The Barge, where the Rascals were discovered, the Playhouse Cafe that was on MacDougal and was the spot where Sebastian met Fred Neil.

These were Our Bands, The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Rascals. Before that, there were the New York doo wop and R&B groups, but in a post-Beatles universe, we needed local heroes with guitars, bass and drums (and, it turned out, organ, thanks to Felix Cavaliere and Al Kooper in The Blues Project). In the second half of 1965, two singles came out, “Do You Believe In Magic,” a sound so simple and so unstoppably joyful, and “Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore,” with its rumbling build-up to a “Yeah!” that was a “Yeah!” of adolescent defiance. “If you were a certain age,” Felix said to me after the session, “we got you.” They were young guys who found other young guys to make noise with. At the time, there were tags put on them: folk-rock, blue-eyed soul, limiting and ultimately meaningless, because what could confine them?

On their debut albums, The Spoonful covered traditional blues and Mann & Weil, and The Rascals covered Dylan and The Beau Brummels. One of The Spoonful’s first recordings was Chuck Berry’s “Almost Grown,” and The Young Rascals led off their first LP with Larry Williams’ “Slow Down.” Which group was “folk,” which group was “soul”? Later on, couldn’t John and Felix have swapped “Daydream” and “Groovin’,” Darling Be Home Soon” and “How Can I Be Sure”? “Come on up,” Felix sang back then, “and have a good time,” not that long after John wrote The Spoonful’s declaration of principles, “Good Time Music.”

So let’s say that’s what it was: a good (or as The Beatles would have it, splendid) time to be devoted to pop music. To see Dino Danelli twirling his sticks, or Zal Yanovsky treat the stage like a playground, to hear songs like “She Is Still A Mystery” or “A Girl Like You” on the radio, to do nothing but listen to Hums of The Lovin’ Spoonful or Collections over and over. That’s what we had in common, the small crowd that came out to see John and Felix trade songs and stories. When we left the Playhouse, we were like a bunch of high-school friends who’d just seen a double bill of our two favorite bands. That was the club we belonged to.

the world’s last cassette


Pop music makes promises it can’t reasonably be expected to keep, but that doesn’t stop us from clinging to it. There’s something so seductive about the idea that pop can heal what’s broken, that finding people to make music with is like building a private fortress. Just this year, we’ve seen Begin Again, We Are The Best! and now Stuart Murdoch’s God Help The Girl celebrate the bonding of a band (in Begin Again’s case, a band of two) as a way to navigate trying times. You could call this sentimentality, I suppose: surely there are other means to handle feelings of displacement, isolation, that don’t involve an accompanying playlist, but you cannot over-estimate how a song — even the idea of a song, like “Pretty Ballerina” by The Left Banke — can transform a moment. Murdoch doesn’t play “Pretty Ballerina” on his soundtrack: he gets the camera in tight on the Smash Records 45, and drops the phonograph needle, and so you expect to hear the single, but instead you hear one of the songs he’s written for the film (he also wrote the screenplay, and directed). It’s one of the maybe half-dozen moments when I muttered “wow” to myself, sitting alone at an a.m. screening in a nearly-empty theater.

God Help The Girl was an album first, or at least, the album came first, in 2009 (maybe there was already a script). Murdoch, of the Scottish duo Belle & Sebastian, did it as a female-centric side project, and even without a visual component, songs like “I’ll Have To Dance With Cassie” (below),” “Pretty Eve In The Tub” and “A Down and Dusky Blonde” felt like free-associative journal entries, and it turns out that’s kind of what they are. Eve, the main character (played by Emily Browning) is a songwriter without a band until she meets James (Olly Alexander) and Cassie (Hannah Murray), and when she sings, the scenes fizz like moments in a vintage movie musical. Or like scenes from a New Wave film; Browning is styled like Anna Karina (there’s a little Bande A Part sneaking in), and reads Anna Karenina, and Murdoch shifts tone and palette giddily, so imagine if Jean-Luc Godard were as romantic about pop music as he is about cinema. Or if Masculin Feminin were all about Chantal Goya’s ye-ye girl.

Whether you respond to Murdoch’s point of view or not, you could well get swept into this, or else be put off by the whimsy (God Help The Girl is also a bit like a Wes Anderson musical, so the word “twee’ might be thrown around). All I know is, it was a movie I needed. All James wants to do is plant a small flag in the pop music ground, make records (and it’s no small bonus that Eve has “pop star” stamped on her genetic passport). Cassie wants to be part of a band. And Eve doesn’t know what she wants, exactly, but she knows it’s probably not in Glasgow. It’s one of those “transition summer” movies, where people who were meant to find each other do, in the nick of time.

adults only


What can explain the poverty of imagination in what passes for contemporary adult pop music? So many of the grown-ups have basically shrugged, muttered “screw it” under their breath and given up looking for, or writing, new songs. Is it that much of a hassle? If you’re going to go into the studio anyway to record music for public consumption, can’t you put a little effort into it? Some of these artists are on labels I’ve worked for, and I have friends who are still professionally connected to them. I wish all of them (well, nearly all of them) smooth sailing as their albums drop in time for Grammy Consideration, but the pre-order track listings are so depressing: songs that have been recycled for generations in some cases, revisited with predictable duet partners

See, these albums say, we know you only care about the vintage stuff, and it’s hard to make a living pushing the new merchandise, and remember how you liked all these songs before? One veteran smooth-pop singer is reportedly working on an entire album of duets with deceased vocalists; we can only hope that someone has a flash of sanity and stops that in its tracks. If you think it can’t get more sacrilegious than Kenny G. noodling along with Louis Armstrong, just wait.

Lately, I’ve been digging through a lot of Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen. Tom Waits and Warren Zevon, and it’s sad. Pick up any old album from their early days — 12 Songs, Songs From A Room, Small Change, Zevon’s debut — and although they were all relatively young men when they went in to cut those songs, there was a sense of gravity. They weren’t boys. There was darkness and experience. There were good jokes, and lines that got you in the gut and below.

Not one of them had a pretty voice, or made easy listening music. Three of them are now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the fourth should get in any year now (too late for what would have been one hell of a speech, I’m sure). What I’m worried about — and here’s where the accusations of codgerdom should start flying my way — is that they, along with Dylan (and some might tack on, say, Billy Joel, or Paul Simon) represent the last generation of grown-up singer-songwriters.

Who is there? Ryan Adams? Maybe. I’m certain some would nominate Beck. John Mayer has his fans. But we should ask: How many songs have they written that have seeped into the culture and stuck the way Newman’s and Cohen’s have? And: Is this just a Guy Problem? Think about the (non-pop) singer-songwriters who have made the deepest, most resonant music over the past ten or so years, and they’re women: Adele, Amy Winehouse, Fiona Apple, and I’m going to throw Lana Del Rey and Kacey Musgraves in there because they’re kind of on the fringes of the genres they reside in. For young women, 21 or Same Trailer, Different Park are Blue, or Tapestry. The guys have left the room to play air guitar.

Pop-pandering, I get. That’s the nature of the game. It’s a world of ear candy and always has been. The other day I heard The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” blasting in my block’s juice-&-smoothie joint, and the college kids behind the counter (I basically live on the N.Y.U. campus) were singing along like it was a new Katy Perry single. But there was this whole other thing going on in the ‘60s and ‘70s when you started to want more than pop. There was a place for the erotic and sardonic, for dive bars and hangovers, for misadventure and questionable behavior.

That was adult music. Now it’s more misty water-colored duets on familiar songs, singers being hoisted from the grave, covers of covers. If you love those songs, and who doesn’t love at least some of them?, you already own them, or can find them easily enough in streamingville. Or is the premise that the audience for these stocking-stuffers is too old to know how to go to Spotify and find countless better versions? Which is to ask: is Michael Buble really necessary?

bigger than a cadillac


“With the hesitations in the beat, in the singing, matched by the words fitted to them — ‘You drivin’ me back’ — the record isn’t easy to listen to, because it doesn’t quite make sense.” - Greil Marcus, The History of Rock ’N’ Roll In Ten Songs, on The Crickets’ “Not Fade Away.”

Of all Buddy Holly songs, “Not Fade Away” is the one that, appropriately, given its title, has never vanished. It’s around more than “Peggy Sue,” more than even “That’ll Be The Day” and “Everyday,” and maybe (baby) that’s due to what Marcus suggests, its inscrutability. Or maybe because it’s real simple to play, with that Bo Diddley beat that anyone can lock into, and that can be locked into anything. It’s the little black dress of rock songs, always appropriate, always stylish, easily accessorized. What doesn’t it go with?

Any other songwriter probably would’ve gone with “you know my love won’t fade away,” and deprived the world one of its great pieces of phrase-making (and David Chase’s movie of its title). Would it have lasted as long? You can zip over to Wikipedia and see a nutty cluster of artists who have covered the song, but the list itself is incomplete, not only in terms of quantity.

Sure, it’s one of the few songs on earth that’s been tried out by The Stones, The Beatles and Bob Dylan, and that’s impressive enough. And it’s been in The Grateful Dead’s elastic repertoire forever. Hand someone — James Taylor, Warren Zevon, Greg Kihn, Joe Ely, Stephen Stills — a guitar, and there’s a fair chance “Not Fade Away” will emerge after some exploratory strumming. The Band used to do it when they were Levon and The Hawks, and it resurfaced as a jam at Watkins Glen. The Byrds sang it on Shindig, The Knack at Carnegie Hall, Patti Smith at Montreux, Jack White outdoors in a parking lot at SXSW.

The early Stones sprinted through it in a head-snapping 109 seconds, a band in a hurry, and Dead-medleys incorporating it have lasted over a half-hour. People keep circling back to it, weaving it into personal rock history in different ways. Some are easy to assemble: Springsteen’s been prone to merging it with his own Diddley homage “She’s The One,” and on the ’78 tour, “Gloria” was thrown into that mix quite a bit. Los Lobos have done it in tandem with their cover of the Dead’s “Bertha,” which also makes sense. But then it’ll pop up in the wackiest places. For Deep Purple, it came pounding out of “Highway Star.” Queen threw a version in between “Another One Bites The Dust” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” At the Madison Square Garden concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Simon & Garfunkel did a shaky couple of minutes of “Mrs. Robinson,” brushed that away, and seamlessly glided into “Not Fade Away,” easy as that.

The Beatles, as Marcus points out in his “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” chapter, kept revisiting Holly. When you hear the bare, early takes from Beatles For Sale, Rubber Soul and Help, it’s so clear how close to Holly songs they are. Then, when they got together for the Get Back sessions, looking for anything, a scrap, to agree on, they inevitably turned to Buddy. There’s a segment when they stick “Not Fade Away” — Lennon on lead vocal — between Duane Eddy’s instrumental “Cannonball” and Dee Clark’s “Hey Little Girl.”

There’s a small, less than a minute, fragment of John Lennon singing “Not Fade Away” into a home recorder at the Dakota, fiddling around with it for a while, and then you hear Yoko, from elsewhere in the room. She’s been humming along, barely audibly. “That’s a good one,” she tells John. “Buddy Holly,” John says. He strums a little more, and the tape runs out.

kid stuff


In the Memphis-music documentary Take Me To The River, a pint-sized, confident child who goes by the name Lil’ P-Nut raps with Otis Clay and gets instructions in phrasing from Bobby “Blue” Bland. In the debut novel 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino, a nine-year old girl, out way too late, gets on stage and wails on “Blossom’s Blues” by Blossom Dearie. In the new Greil Marcus book The History of Rock ’N’ Roll in Ten Songs, he tells how producer George Goldner tormented 16-year old Arlene Smith of The Chantels in the recording studio to get those otherworldly, anguished performances that never have been surpassed, not by Aretha, Mavis, Gladys, anyone.

And speaking of which, Aretha cut her first roof-raising gospel sides when she was fourteen, the same age Etta James was when Johnny Otis discovered her. Mavis was 17 when The Staple Singers’ “Uncloudy Day” came out on Vee Jay, and Gladys Knight won on Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour (the ’50’s American Idol) when she was seven. The Pips were formed a year later.

Whenever I hear about how “young” some new pop singer is, even the ones who come out of the Disney or Nick factory, I wonder why I’m supposed to be impressed. Brenda Lee was aptly monikered Little Miss Dynamite at 13. Two of the Wilson brothers were in their teens when The Beach Boys broke. Alex Chilton and Steve Winwood were ridiculously gifted sixteen year old soul singers. And then there were Frankie Lymon and Michael Jackson. You hear “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?” and “I Want You Back” even now, and they knock you back. The bass voice of The Teenagers lays out a few seconds of fanfare, like “here it comes…,” and then Frankie and the group counter with six “ooh-wah”s, and from that point it’s Frankie’s show. What does a fourteen year old know about being a fool in love?, one might wonder, but only if one has completely forgotten being fourteen.

“I Want You Back” came out in the fall of 1969, around six weeks after Woodstock, a few months after the moonwalk. Michael was eleven years old. So much on the single is going on at once that it takes a while to adjust (not now, when it’s been in the air for 45 years, but when it first came on the radio). Greil Marcus writes about “There Goes My Baby” in The History of Rock ’N’ Roll, how so many people described it as hearing two radio stations at once, playing different records. It changed the direction of The Drifters, and Atlantic Records, and pop-R&B music, and the way top 40 records were produced and arranged. I was too young to be tuned to the radio when “There Goes My Baby” hit the airwaves, so it didn’t sound at all strange when I eventually caught up with it. I’d heard enough Phil Spector records by then, and later Drifters hits like “Up On The Roof.”

That’s an element of rock history that’s a slippery thing: where you were, how old you were, what stations you listened to. You have to go backwards and stay in the moment at the same time to get a sense of how everything fits together. What if you heard Bobby Vee before you were aware of Buddy Holly, who had already been gone for a couple of years when Vee’s “Take Good Care Of My Baby” came out? You just hear it as another song. You might not know who Gerry Goffin and Carole King are, but then you connect them to The Shirelles and The Drifters.

So you might hear The Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back,” initially, as souped-up Motown. New Motown, the way The Temptation’s “Cloud Nine” was, Motown keeping up with how pop-soul was being scrambled up by Sly & The Family Stone. The intro itself is thrilling, how each instrument enters with a little overture to what it’s going to be up to as the song progresses. You could loop that twenty seconds ten times and it would be a hit single before Michael utters a word. Except he doesn’t utter a word, exactly; he comes in like Frankie Lymon does, “ah-huh-huh-huuuh” (that’s the best I can transcribe it), is his “ooh-wah,” and then, “Let me tell you now!” Finally, the start of a story: “When I had you to myself, I didn’t want you around.”

I can’t think of anyone else who made an entrance so dramatic: “Let me tell you now!,” Michael explodes and you had to listen because what could come out of this kid’s mouth? What could be the trigger for this? Well, it builds and builds, and it’s like there are two different choruses. One starts “Oh baby give me one more chance…” and the second one “Now since I see you in his arms, I want you back!” His brothers sing the title hook. Michael doesn’t say “I want you back” until the song is on its fade (around 2:50 in). Maybe that’s why some people think the song is called “One More Chance.” Might as well be. Then again, it might as well be “All I Want, All I Need” as Michael screams on the bridge.

Now “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?” and “There Goes My Baby” and “I Want You Back” are enshrined, as they should be, as part of the long saga of doo-wop and Atlantic and Motown, how the music progressed. You could build a book around those three songs, the people involved, from Morris Levy, George Goldner and Richard Barrett to Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, Leiber & Stoller and Ben E. King, to Berry Gordy and the rest of the Motown crew. Or you could listen to them, and if you’re old enough, remember how startling they were when they came on the radio.