bits & pieces

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Since the Dave Clark Five documentary airing on PBS is the work of Dave Clark, it can’t come as a surprise that it doesn’t raise the question of whether Clark is in fact playing drums on all those pounding early hits or whether it’s, as many people strongly suspect, the late session drummer Bobby Graham. Which is no small deal considering how many of the fans and witnesses interviewed for the film go on at some length about the whole drum presence of those singles, how front-and-center the beat was in a pop group that was, after all, named for its drummer. Fifty years on, I suppose you could say it doesn’t matter that much, because what we celebrate when we celebrate the DC5 was how those records make you feel.

It wasn’t only The Beatles, which as we Hebrews say, dayenu (“It would have been enough”), but blam!, mere days later, the DC5, The Searchers, and then The Zombies, The Animals, The Kinks, Peter & Gordon and so on. What does it diminish the experience if we know that Graham was the shadow drummer on “Tobacco Road” by The Nashville Teens, “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night” by The Kinks, “Gloria” and “Baby Please Don’t Go” by Them, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” by The Animals (he also was on Dusty’s “I Only Want To Be With You,” The Walker Brothers’ “Make It Easy On Yourself,” and Petula Clark’s “Downtown”)?

Graham claimed that he played on all the major DC5 singles: “Glad All Over,” “Bits and Pieces,” “Can’t You See That She’s Mine,” “Do You Love Me,” “Any Way You Want It,” “Catch Us If You Can” and others, but it remains a fuzzy issue, and Clark has denied it. When the DC5 were having hits (’64-’66 here in the States), it wasn’t common to credit session players, so if Dennis Wilson was known as the drummer in The Beach Boys, you just assumed that it was him on, say, “Help Me, Rhonda,” or “California Girls,” when it fact it was Hal Blaine. At this point, however, everyone pretty much knows what Blaine and the other Wrecking Crew musicians brought to the party — to me, the closest domestic analogy to the DC5 were Paul Revere & The Raiders, and it wasn’t any revelation to find out they didn’t play on all their hit singles — but honestly, until I started hearing those DC5 rumors a few years ago when Graham passed away, I didn’t even consider that studio guys played on Animals, Pretty Things (Graham also produced them), Nashville Teens, Them and Kinks (except for the persistent chatter about Jimmy Page being on the earliest sessions) records.

The figure that’s tossed around on the internet for Bobby Graham recordings is 15,000, and I’m not proficient enough in math to determine whether that’s plausible or not. But if a fraction of his discography is accurate, then he was the drummer on at least two dozen of the greatest rock & roll records ever made — “Gloria,” “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” “Tobacco Road,” “You Really Got Me” just at the apex — and a whole lot of pop classics as well (with The Walker Brothers and Dusty Springfield: on the Graham website there’s a story about her throwing a cup of coffee at him during a session. “Dusty didn’t like the sound at Phillips; she couldn’t get the warm American sound over here”). Producers Joe Meek and Mickie Most used him a lot. He played on sessions for Marianne Faithfull and Francoise Hardy. Also from the website, a typical Graham day: Pye studios with Tony Hatch in the morning, a midday session with P.J. Proby at EMI, and then the evening at Decca with Them (Bert Berns producing, Jimmy Page on guitar). Listen to the incredible racket he makes on “All Day and All of the Night,” to his rolling thunder at the start of “Make It Easy On Yourself,” to the dark stomp of “Tobacco Road.”

What about the Dave Clark Five, then? I guess we can agree on this: credit the drum sound to Clark, who produced the records and made them louder, more dense and raucous than any other songs on the radio, with so much reverb and overdubbing that even a mint condition 45 felt smudgy as soon as you put it on your cruddy little turntable. Maybe Graham and Clark are both right, and there are two drummers on these tracks, mixed into one booming crunch. The doc pleads its case for the group too hyperbolically, I think (one talking head, Elton?, says that The Beatles, The Stones and The DC5 were the three big blasts from Britain, and Steve Van Zandt ranks their songwriting up there with Lennon & McCartney and Jagger & Richards), but if any one U.K. invasion group can be represented solely by a Greatest Hits album, it was the DC5. There’s no great album in their catalog, but those singles tell a big part of the story from 50 years ago this spring.

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There was a joke on a recent episode of The Mindy Project about a fictional (as far as I know) Ken Burns documentary on the History of Doo Wop, a throwaway line, and not only would I watch that for as many installments as Burns wanted to give me, I might even be persuaded to donate some money to PBS. The lens that Doo Wop is peered at through is so narrow, so cliched and quaint — all those “reunions” that reduce the genre to one or two hits per group — that it can look like a crazy little cultural blip of nonsense syllables and naive ideas of romance and heartbreak. There’s even a weekend cruise called Malt Shop Memories, which makes me cringe, because it reduces the era, and the art, to the idea of Archie and Veronica sharing an ice cream soda at Pop’s. As though Doo Wop has nothing to tell us as music, but only as an emotional trigger, the whole first kiss, first breakup syndrome, tears spilled onto pillows, grinding at the hop and rama lama ding dong. You don’t see the early stages of jazz or country treated this way. So let Burns loose in the archives, get Questlove to narrate (his dad was Lee Andrews of the Philadelphia group The Hearts), and let’s hear some answers to the questions Who put the bomp? and Who wrote the book of love? and Why don’t you write me?

People who are into Doo Wop are really into Doo Wop, tracking down impossibly rare 45s (only original pressings, if you please) at record fairs, trumpeting the obscure. Like fans of Metal, or Northern Soul, or Dixieland Jazz, they have their own world and that world sometimes feels like a remote outpost. It’s odd: some Doo Wop records became big hits, classic oldies, but many of the most famous, cherished records weren’t that popular when they were released. “Lovers Never Say Goodbye” by The Flamingos, “In The Still of the Nite” by The Five Satins, “Wisdom of a Fool” by The Five Keys, countless others, didn’t crack the national top 20. They feel like were hits because they took on a shadow life as spun by disc jockeys who dug for blasts from the past. If you weren’t around during the initial Doo Wop wave (I wasn’t), you don’t know which records truly mattered in their own time and which took on greater significance later on. Also, it was a very local scene, so if something got a lot of spins in Pittsburgh, or Oakland, and that’s where you grew up, you have a different idea of the shape of things. If like Paul Simon or Lou Reed, you were glued to Alan Freed’s show, his playlist was your world, which was different from Hunter Hancock’s on the west coast, where Sly Stone and Frank Zappa were.

Another reason we need a documentary to thread all this is that even if the records are sort of familiar, and the names of the groups might ring a bell, so many of the singers are forgotten except by the truly devoted. Willie Winfield, Eugene Pitt, Arlene Smith, Cleve Duncan, Herbie Cox, Johnny Funches, Tommy Hunt…even the great Clyde McPhatter, who influenced Elvis Presley so profoundly, they’re all lost names, except in the liner notes of lovingly crafted collections like the new box of 5 Royales masters that I think I need to have in my life soon. And how about all the groups that preceded, chronologically, what we know as Doo Wop, The Ink Spots, The Mills Brothers, The Ravens, The Orioles, The Jive Bombers and how their sounds segued into the rock & roll era? And gospel groups like The Soul Stirrers? There are stories about race, and how integrated rock shows and groups like The Del-Vikings started breaking prejudices down.

The other evening, I heard that singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester was seriously ill, and I went to the places where you go these days to catch up and reflect (YouTube, Facebook). I searched for a clip of him singing on Elvis Costello’s series Spectacle, which aired for a couple of seasons on Sundance, and luckily I found it. “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is,” Noel Coward famously wrote in Private Lives, and that’s what “Sham-A-Ling-Ding-Dong” conveys, how inarticulate music can move us, how much emotion it can contain. What a lyric like “sham-a-ling ding-dong” can do. It’s not trivial. You watch him in this clip, frail but in the moment, reaching back and seizing the past. Sitting next to him is Neko Case, a tear falling from her eye, and when Winchester is done, Costello is gutted. What can you even say? People who reduce Doo Wop to nostalgic gibberish, they’re fools.

jackie gleason, master of musical seduction

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In the cultural occurrences that defy explanation department, stretch the imagination and pretend you’re a record executive at Capitol Records in the 1950s, and a manager comes into your office to pitch you the concept of romantic mood music under the creative auspices of Jackie Gleason. You nod your head, and think, of course, what an inspired notion, because when you think of someone perfect to set a seductive mood, who more worthy than that dreamboat who plays Ralph Kramden, that suave sweet-talker whose subtle endearments could make any woman weak? It gives new meaning to “to the moon,” if what he’s promising is a night of sexual skyrockets.

I can only conjecture that the deal was made after a night imbibing at the back table at Jack Dempsey’s saloon when, at around 3:00 am, Gleason thought aloud, “You know, what every swinging bachelor needs is the cool, persuasive hand of a master to guide him, musically, from the living room to the boudoir.” He was just the man to do it. How many unsuspecting, cautious young women were inspired to snuggle between the sheets because their dates said, “Why don’t I whip up some cocktails and slip on some Gleason?” Swoon.

It has to have worked, in some manner, because this was not a one-time event, an album made as a favor to a celebrity, a Golden Throats thing without the throat itself. This was a long-lasting series of albums, and what accounts for that?? Surely, having one Gleason in your LP collection would have been plenty, if the premise was mood-setting. How could one Gleason album be any different from its predecessors? It was just a dozen ballads, lushly orchestrated, every time. But the genius was that the titles and the covers promised exotic variations. Oh, a guy browsing the record store might come across Mr. Gleason “presenting” Love Embers and Flame (“Twin string orchestras in rich, romantic arrangements” of numbers like “For All We Know” and “It’s a Blue World”). Twin string orchestras! That has to be more bang for the buck, so to speak, than a single string orchestra playing similar songs on Music, Martinis, and Memories. Plus, the woman on the Love Embers jacket seems to be emerging from a blaze, while the Music, Martinis babe is holding a drink at what looks like a piano bar. It’s a completely different musical experience inside, Gleason implies.

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Then we have Music For The Love Hours (roughly midnight to breakfast, I suppose). On that one, the woman is blonde instead of brunette, wearing something vaguely nightgownish, and a gentleman’s hand is about to light her smoke. Too subtle, maybe. Our hypothetical ladies’ man needs an album that guarantees him some action, otherwise why spend $2.98 on music that has virtually no value as music? How about Music To Make You Misty? Hmmm, misty = vulnerable, maybe, but the woman on this cover looks a little scared, and her hand is on the telephone, like she’s about to call whatever the equivalent of 911 was in the ‘50s. And the typeface is spooky. Next. Jackie Gleason Plays Romantic Jazz. Jazz is sexy, right? Except a drawing of Jackie himself is on the cover. The artist is trying to make him look dapper, white tie and all, but it’s still Jackie.

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Here we go: Music To Change Her Mind! The sexiest one of all. The woman looks like a tousled Tuesday Weld, and the title says that whatever she might be thinking at the moment, however reluctant she may be, there is no getting around it. This music will trick her into finding you fuckable. You think this is only a record album? You fool. Bear with me here. You’ve gotten this young lady to come to your place for a nightcap, and just as she’s about to split, you take this album from the shelf and put it on the hi-fi. Do you hide the album cover from her? Probably. Because not only is the album title a giveaway, but do you want her to read the list of songs, especially the three song run that ends side one, “Guilty,” “It’s The Talk of The Town,” and “My Sin”? This is the fifties. Guilt, gossip and sin are probably not the cards you want to play.

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You’ve bought these albums, and your social life has flourished beyond Hugh Hefner’s fantasies. And you’re hooked on the Gleason Philosophy. It was a lovely streak of luck, and it’s all due to this collection of LP’s you’ve amassed. Only one last purchase remains: Music To Remember Her. Each song has a different woman’s name, so if you’ve gone all the way with someone named Tangerine or Stella, good news there, you have a souvenir. Mr. Gleason was so thoughtful, there is no one “Her” gracing the album jacket. There are six disembodied heads, floating on the 12 X 12 canvas as if in a diverse (hair color, of course, not race) dream where you are haunted by their memory. Without this album, they all would be forgotten. Where have you gone, Charmagne? Rose Anne?

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hip chicks’ seasonal disorder

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Ah, springtime. Fling open the windows, stash the scarves and gloves, take a stroll, find a Coolhaus ice cream truck and linger in Union Square Park, where people gather to soak in some sunshine. Because hope springs! Alternatively, you can draw the shades and curse Daylight Savings Time since, as songwriters know, spring is a cruel trick, a sham meant to hold out the promise of rebirth and new opportunity.

Nearly all the best songs about spring are about disappointment, and all the best versions are by tuned-in women who know the score. “Spring Is Here,” “Some Other Spring,” “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most,” “Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year,” “There’ll Be Another Spring,” I could make you a playlist that will take you to the brink of despair. “Now April, May and June are sadly out of tune,” Lorenz Hart announces in the verse of “Spring Is Here,” “Life has stuck the pin in the balloon,” and the rest of the song is one long sigh. What’s the point of desire, ambition?

Imagine, if you want, one of the guys who took this song on (Sinatra on Only The Lonely, Nat drowning in strings, Darin, Chet, Tony) nursing a highball in some small dive, but for real poignance, nothing beats June Christy or Julie London, each accompanied by one sad guitar (and bass on June’s disc), although you could make a real case for Chris Connor’s forlorn version (above). Those jazz girls, they nail the self-pity thing: “Why doesn’t my heart go dancing?,” they ask, feeling oh-so unwanted. Spring? Yeah, so? (When Rodgers moved on from Hart to Hammerstein, his new lyricist pulled a reverse with “It Might As Well Be Spring,” where the singer is just so giddy in an Elmer Fuddish way — “as restless as a willow in a windstorm” — that seasonal accuracy be damned, even if it can’t be actual spring fever, and there’s no concrete romantic situation, optimism is abloom.)

The hippest screw-spring song is another one that Miss Christy at least co-owns (with Ella, I’d say, but nearly every major post-‘50s jazz thrush can claim a piece, including Betty Carter, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen MacRae, Irene Kral): “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most,” words and music by Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf. It’s a one-of-a-kind thing, a beat-generation (dig the vernacular in the title) torch song that quietly became a standard without ever being a hit: it popped up initially on an album by the pop-jazz duo Jackie Cain and Roy Kral and then filtered through the singer circuit. Christy’s version, arranged by Pete Rugolo, kicks off the 1958 album The Song Is June, and has a smoky vibe: this LP is not going to be a joy ride.

“Once I was a sentimental thing,” Christy sings, tossing such illusions behind her. Landesman’s lyric is casually dismissive: “All I’ve got to show’s a splinter for my little fling,” “Love is just a ghost,” “I’ve decided that spring is a bore.” And all those women lined up behind Christy and Jackie Cain, into the sixties, all the way up to Chaka Khan and Rickie Lee Jones and this decade’s Kat Edmonson, who completely strips it down.

Frank Loesser’s “Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year” is more hopeful. Not too much more. In the singer’s “lonely world,” she (again, almost always a she: Jeri Southern, Anita O’Day, Ella, straight through to Carly Simon with Jimmy Webb) admits that winter’s going to hang around for a bit in the wake of a break-up. It’ll be cold for a while longer. And although there are glimmers of potential in Peggy Lee’s “There’ll Be Another Spring” and in “Some Other Spring,” they’re awfully minute. Want to just hide under the covers for a few months or more? Here’s the ending of “Some Other Spring”:

Some other spring
Will my heart awake?

Stirring to sing

Love’s magic music

Then forget the old duet

Love in some other spring?

Spring?

Not gloomy enough on paper? How about sung by Billie Holiday in the mid-‘50s? Or Marianne Faithfull in the ‘60s?

The problem with spring, in song terms — not that there aren’t plenty of songs that celebrate it, from “Springtime In Manhattan” to “Suddenly It’s Spring” — is that it brings everything out into the unsparing glare of the sun. Winter hides, and spring reveals. So if you’re in that mood to begin with, the what-the-hell mood, what you want to do is go someplace dark and hear someone, preferably someone who sounds like she knows a thing or three about heartbreak. sing about how spring — the idea of spring in romantic terms — is a joke (April Fool!). If Kat Edmonson were playing downtown tonight, that’s probably where I’d be.

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© Jim Marshall Photography LLC

I practically live in The Strand bookstore. I mean, if someone dug a tunnel in the basement of the apartment building I reside in, I could walk through it and wind up inside the store. As a result, I spend a lot of time and money there. Carts of cheap books — a buck or two — line the street from the corner practically to my front door, and that’s how I ended up paying $1 this afternoon for a volume called No One Waved Good-bye, subtitled “A casualty report on rock and roll.” It was edited by Robert Somma, who also edited a rock magazine called Fusion that I wrote for a few times in the early ‘70s, and it’s a 1971 collection of essays on recently-deceased rock people: Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Epstein. Among the contributors are Al Aronowitz, Lillian Roxon, Jon Landau, Richard Meltzer, Lou Reed and Danny Fields (in conversation with critic/scholar Jeff Nesin).

In the U.S., it was published in ’71, but the edition I found is a U.K. one, from 1973, which means that by the time it hit the stores in England, the ranks of the departed included Jim Morrison, and that’s kind of unsettling, because in the final essay, Meltzer’s “Who’ll Be The Next In Line?,” he speculates that Morrison “could be next,” only because there’s a J in his name (like Jimi, Janis, Jones). Meltzer also offers the opinion that “Elvis oughta die real soon,” based on no theory at all; you sort of have to know Meltzer’s writing to follow this train of thought.

Fusion published a thing I wrote on Morrison and The Doors, and Somma sent me a letter saying how much he liked it, and that he’d have included it in this compendium if Morrison’s death had made the deadline. Like my essay, these are right-after-the-fact reflections. What you realize is that there are multiple stages that a critical-cultural reputation goes through. More than forty years ago, as a few of these writers report it, Brian, Jimi and Janis had already — as no one said then — jumped the shark. Neil Louison: “Anyway, neither Janis’ nor Jimi’s curve was on the upswing.” Consider that for a minute. Hendrix and Joplin “broke” in 1967-1968. They died in ’70. That’s a blip, and even if you buy the premise that what they were doing at the exact moments of their deaths was not as exciting as The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Big Brother & The Holding Company were when they both played Monterey in June 1967, let’s pretend (as terrible as it is) that Bob Dylan had died in ’70, after Self Portrait. Would anyone have written the next year that, “Anyway, his curve was not on the upswing”? Before he even had the chance to make Blood On The Tracks?

Some of these critics are dismissive (The Boston Globe”s George Frazier on Janis: “In fact, to describe her as an artist is to demean the accomplishments of contemporaries like Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner and Nina Simone,” and have fun unpacking all that nonsense), but Landau sees that Janis might have recovered from “the musical mistakes of her past,” and Roxon is insightful about the extra-musical influence of Janis and Jimi, how they reshaped fashion and imagery. “You know,” she writes, “in the end, it always turns out to be a question of hair,” and I would have loved to have read a Roxon book that follows on her idea that “I honestly believe you could tell the story of twentieth-century America on hair alone.” She could have included Janis and Jimi (and Brian, although she doesn’t address him here) and moved backwards and outwards from there.

Fields and Aronowitz have some fun stories, of course, and I’m pretty sure (someone will tell me if I’m wrong) that Lou Reed’s long piece “Fallen Knights and Fallen Ladies” doesn’t appear anywhere else but this volume. At least I’d never come across it before. He’s great on Brian Epstein (“Had Epstein realized what he had unleashed on the world? Did he tie his kite to their comet or was it vice versa?”), on the lead singer-lead guitarist hierarchy that wound up exiling Brian Jones from the band he’d started, and this Hendrix run is golden: “Jimi played music beautiful music every waking moment, noon and sun-music permeated his every thought and action and it had to be, I repeat, had to be, that he would have to say I must play real music or shrivel up and die one wind-swept morning.”

Other people mentioned in passing in No One Waved Good-Bye are gone. Reed, and Morrison and Elvis, Louis Armstrong and Johnny Cash, Jerry Garcia and Nico. With some, there were decades of decline and resurgence, there was shape to the narrative, and finality. When Brian Jones, Janis and Jimi died, it was during what could have been pauses of short or long duration. Who could know? Jones is a tough call: what do you do after you’re a Rolling Stone? Janis’ recent performances had been nerve-rattling; I remember seeing her on a TV show and literally having to walk out of the room. I was convinced she was having a breakdown. But there are glimpses of something else emerging on what became Pearl. And Hendrix…sure, one concert I saw in ’69 was a disaster, but imagine him in the ‘70s, absorbing the influences of electric Miles (who’d been influenced by Hendrix), Sly, Curtis Mayfield. In ’70, Clapton had only just broken up with Blind Faith.

It turns out that Roxon was right about how Janis’ “gypsy look or rich hippie” (as the fashion mags termed it) may have made a more lasting impression than her records (except for the young women who sing “Me and Bobby McGee” on the “talent” shows, do you feel her musical presence much?), that Reed nailed the artistry vs. commerce part of the Hendrix equation. The 1971 versions of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and even Brian Jones, are valuable because they reflect The Moment, the way writers rushed to explain Kurt Cobain, Jeff Buckley and Amy Winehouse. You want to make sense of these losses, sum things up. “No one waved good-bye?” To Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Brian Epstein? Tell that to the Beatles biographers, Broadway producers, documentarians, reissue compliers. All we do is wave good-bye. Over and over.

who are the mystery girls?

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There are a couple of pages devoted to Victoire Scott in the newish book Ye-Ye Girls of ‘60s French Pop by Jean-Emmanuel Deluxe, in the section titled “Psyche and Folk Girls,” and that brief chapter represents my entire biographical knowledge of Ms. Scott. It isn’t much. She recorded 14 sides between 1968 and 1970, appeared on TV a couple of times, and then, well, then, who knows? “Even the people who met her…,” Deluxe writes, “have lost trace of her.” Then he translates one of her songs, “Contestation” (“I had powder do the talking in the form of caster sugar/This is revolution”), and concludes that she is “like a faded dream, a sort of mythical figure of French pop.”

So naturally, on a search I went, because now you can uncover anything, and if you tell me there is a mysterious Ye-Ye girl who is like some musical phantom, I cannot get to the computer fast enough. Everything is accessible, right? OK, so her sole album is unavailable, even in France (amazon.fr was no help), and there isn’t a Wikipedia page on her, and no items for auction on Ebay, and even the Ye-Ye-devoted site Blow-Up Doll is short on info. but surely You Tube will provide some material. And in fact, it does: I’ve now accessed a dozen of Victoire’s songs — the other two are out there somewhere — and they swoon and swirl in that detached mod-chanteuse way. It’s kind of like if Michael Brown from The Left Banke wrote and arranged songs for Marianne Faithfull, except in French. That might not mean something to everybody, but I’m sure some of my friends have already stopped reading this and gone to YouTube to play “La Licorne D’or” and “4eme Dimension.”

You can never catch up with everything; it’s an endless spiral. I have some footing in jazz and pop singers from the ‘50s and ‘60s, so how was it that until recently I didn’t know about the debut album by Helen Merrill on Emarcy where she was backed up by a band featuring Clifford Brown? Imagine a Chet Baker album where instead of Chet singing it’s a sultry, blasé chick, and instead of Chet playing it’s Clifford Brown, who may have been the best jazz trumpet player of his short era. And for all the Nelson Riddle-plus-vocalist LPs in my collection, for all I’ve dug to find the albums he made at Capitol with Keely Smith, Peggy Lee, I only just discovered the Sue Raney w/Riddle album When Your Lover Has Gone, which has a nigh-perfect version of “I Remember You.” And then that pointed me to an album she made with Billy May, the unfortunately-titled but lovely Songs For A Raney Day.

Now multiply that by whatever genres have a hold on you, rockabilly, doo wop, Northern Soul, girl groups, Memphis/Muscle Shoals R&B, country, garage, maybe all of the above and then some, and it’s madness. You know all those books and articles, 1000 movies to see before you die, or albums you must hear, or novels everyone should have read? I’m the person who’s completely annoying in that way: You mean you don’t know Mickey Newbury’s Frisco Mabel Joy? You love Pet Sounds but you never heard the album Brian Wilson produced for Spring? There will always be people who haven’t been exposed to Ann Peebles, or the first LP by The Pretty Things.

I pick up a book like Ye-Ye Girls, and even though I have a sub-rudimentary familiarity with the French language (not nearly enough to follow the content of a pop song, even ones that would seem sort of simple, like Victoire Scott’s “Un Garcon, Une Fille” and “Hey Mamma”), I feel it’s my cultural obligation, like homework, to see what these young women were up to. Even with a significant head start — my collection brims with Francoise Hardy, Jane Birkin, Sylvie Vartan, Chantal Goya, France Gall — I’m intimidated. Who is this Katty Line person? (She’s fun: start with “Igor, Natacha” and the Nancy Sinatra cover below.) Stella’s songs seem sharp and clever (at least as translated in the book), and Christine Pilzer’s “Cafe Creme” is zippy sugar-pop. That’s a start, at least.

the woody dilemma

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My shrink’s office was, for quite a while, in the same building as Woody Allen’s managers, and I worked a couple of blocks east, so I literally crossed paths with Mr. Allen every so often. He was a guy in the neighborhood. When I moved to Manhattan and started reviewing films, I used to see him and Diane Keaton around town, at screenings and museums. Later on, she was doing her cabaret thing at Reno Sweeney (I wish she’d have finished that album she was making: there’s no recorded evidence of how utterly beguiling she was). What I wanted was to be in a version of the Woody-Diane relationship, to be smitten with a woman who was sexy and loopy and could sing standards in a downtown nightclub. That was how I envisioned life in NYC: writing, seeing movies and music and art exhibits with someone who appreciated my wry, self-deprecating self, because, let’s be clear, it was Woody Allen as much as anyone who helped to redefine the qualities that made a guy attractive, and we owe him that debt at the very minimum.

There’s an Ethics column in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine by Chuck Klosterman, answering a question about whether it’s appropriate to “boycott” Woody Allen’s films (and, one infers, his books, his record albums) in light of the accusations that he did things so appalling, and criminal, that to watch Radio Days on HBO is endorsing him, or acting as a cultural character witness on his behalf, or something like that. As Klosterman points out, someone can select entertainment options based on any criteria whatsoever. If it makes you feel better as a human being to refrain from listening to Phil Spector records, banish him if you like, but be prepared to live a life without The Ronettes and some really good John Lennon and George Harrison albums. No one is forcing you to watch Roman Polanski’s Repulsion or (here’s a neat twist) Rosemary’s Baby. Chuck Berry allegedly did some awful, degrading things also, and so did any number of Rolling Stones (listened to “Stray Cat Blues” lately?). Want to strip your list of permissible art of works by people whose behavior creeps you out? That’s your prerogative.

Also in the Times is J. Hoberman’s review of a new DVD release of Crimes and Misdemeanors, a piece that recognizes how impressive a film this is, but adds this caveat: “It is also discomfiting, not least in Cliff’s [Allen’s character] relationship with his prepubescent niece Jenny.” That’s fair. For me, there was a stream of Allen’s films — Everyone Says I Love You, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Deconstructing Harry, Husbands and Wives — where I cringed every moment he was on screen with a younger woman. Watching him nuzzle Elisabeth Shue or Julia Roberts was so viscerally offensive, and I was relieved when he took himself out of the equation as a romantic figure (not that it helped his films any: he hit a career low with Whatever Works, which coupled Larry David and Evan Rachel Wood). I’m not saying that we don’t see some of his patterns, themes, jokes, etc. through however we interpret his (still alleged) behavior.

Over the last few days, I listened to one of Woody Allen’s ‘60s comedy albums (hilarious), and watched Manhattan on Netflix, not as a test, but just because I was flipping around and that’s where I landed. There are scenes in Manhattan that now feel flipped on their head: near the end, there’s a moral confrontation between Allen and Michael Murphy, where Murphy is taking the “heart wants what it wants” position, and Allen is arguing for more stringent ethics, and instead of a dialog, it sounds like Allen battling with himself. He says that when it’s all over, he wants to be remembered as a good person who did the right thing, and then he goes and tries to emotionally manipulate an 18-year old girl.

It drives you crazy, the troubling Woody Allen divide: the characters who literally get away with murder (Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point, Bullets Over Broadway) and near-incestuous adultery (Hannah and Her Sisters), the snooty disdain for post-WWII pop music (everything), and then you have Diane Keaton in Love and Death, Annie Hall and Manhattan Murder Mystery, the unexpected twinkle of Midnight In Paris, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz battling in Spanish in Vicki Christina Barcelona

When Diane Keaton was on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart confessed to her, on behalf of so many of us, that the fact that she was romantically drawn to Woody Allen was a hope-inspiring phenomenon. In the crummy Herbert Ross-directed Play It Again, Sam, the hard-boiled wisdom of Humphrey Bogart provides Allen with a guide to seduction, and in life, that’s the role Allen’s character played. I could have watched Woody and Diane, after Sleeper and Love and Death, for a dozen more movies, but then he met Mia Farrow and everyone knows how that turned out.

It’s a sad, disturbing mess, all of it, and I can no more defend Woody Allen the boyfriend and father than I can defend Woody Allen the writer-director of Melinda and Melinda, Scoop and Anything Else. I’m sure that the next time I come across one of his films I haven’t seen in a while, some scenes (like the ones Hoberman mentions) will make me wince or at least reevaluate how I responded originally. All his work has this indelible ink spilled on it.

But after Annie Hall was released, I asked out a girl who worked for a record company, and she was reluctant to take the friendship anywhere. Then, one night it all clicked, and the next day she sent a few albums over to my office with a note that read, “Well, la-dee-dah.”

walk through his dukedom

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In One More Thing, a new collection of short stories by B. J. Novak, the Duke of Earl visits the United States in June 1962, and is pleased by the response he gets when he introduces himself. He’s also surprised that everyone he meets starts singing the same song. What could account for this?

I’ve written about “Duke of Earl” by Gene Chandler with The Dukays (was that their name before or after they cut this track?) on my old MOG blog. It’s a single that has always fascinated me. It came either at the tail end of the doo wop era or the beginning of the first doo wop revival, depending on how you calculate these things. The record has lost nothing of its majesty. First, The Dukays announce the Duke’s arrival, set the scene for his pronouncements, by chanting his name, and then he appears: “As I walk through this world, nothing can stop the Duke of Earl,” the Duke says of himself. His power, it seems, is absolute. But it becomes evident right away what the reason for his braggadocio is: this is a proclamation of love and protection.

Come walk alongside of me, he’s saying to his girl, you will be my duchess, impervious to harm, ruling with me over my domain, my dukedom, if you will. His subjects sing underneath him, creating a throne of sound that lifts him up. It’s a perfect hit single. You knew when you heard it for the first time that you would be hearing it and hearing it. And I would point out that the week it became the #1 single in NYC, it had to dominate “The Wanderer” by Dion, in its own way an assertion of entitlement, except Dion was not about to share his turfdom with any one girl. Such was not his way. Dion and The Duke sang their respective early-’62 singles in the cinematic timepieces Twist Around The Clock and Don’t Knock The Twist, respectively.

This was the creation of the Duke of Earl, and the response was so dramatic that, for the next few Vee Jay singles, at least, Gene Chandler became The Duke of Earl. That’s how he was credited on the labels. These were songs by The Duke of Earl himself, although only the actual follow-up, “Walk On With The Duke,” continued the saga of his reign. “Walk On” begins with an instrumental refrain of the original’s opening, then enter his choir; “Walk on with The Duke,” they exclaim, and he tells his story about how he came to town, a stranger from the land of Earl, to woo a girl in a blue dress. It will be the two of them against this world, he says, which indicates some trouble in Earl. No specifics, but couldn’t he find a native Earlian girl to walk on with him? And this song is relatively short on promises of imperviousness, No wonder it stalled at a very undukelike #91 on the national charts.

So that, you might assume, was the end of The Duke. In the pop world, he was granted little respect. “I Stopped The Duke of Earl,” boasted The Upfronts. Dorothy Berry declared herself “The Girl Who Stopped The Duke of Earl.” Rod McKuen referred to him dismissively as The Duke of Oil. An early Tamla Motown single by Little Otis claimed “I Out-Duked The Duke.” The Conquerors’ female lead singer sang “Duchess Conquer Duke.” What had The Duke done to be so cruelly derided, so mocked? Could he help it that he came from Earl, which made his title somewhat comical? He was just looking for love: “Come on let me hold you darling, ‘cause I’m the Duke of Earl.” Yeah, and I’m the Count of Basie. Get lost, pal. Oh, there were uncritical “Duchess of Earl” singles by The Pearlettes and Bobbie Smith & The Dreamgirls, who seemed content to walk on by the side of The Duke.

It took a while for Gene Chandler to resurface as an R&B singer without the trappings of Dukishness, but his first hit sunk deep into the pop memory bank. There was a U.K.-pop version of “The Duke of Earl” by Wayne Fontana and The Mindbenders, some terrific records out of Jamaica (Cornell Campbell, Ken Boothe), and later on, Joey Ramone and Frank Black added the song to their repertoire.

And there is the 2004 Paul Muldoon poem “Soccer Moms” that was brought to my attention from 2004, published in The New Yorker. This is how it ends:

hanker for the time when it was not yet revealed

failure’s no less literal than figurative,
 the time of day when light fails on the field
and gives back a sky more muddy than mother-of-pearl,

so it’s with a deepening sense of regret 
they remember Gene Chandler topping the charts with “Duke of Earl”
and winning their hearts, Mavis and Merle.

louis, dolly & mame

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The top 10 records in New York City fifty years ago this week: The Beatles, The 4 Seasons, The Beatles, The Beatles, Louis Armstrong & The All Stars, Al Hirt, Diane Renay, The Dave Clark Five, The Searchers, The Rivieras. Over at the other hit music station: The Beatles, The Beatles, The 4 Seasons, The Beatles, Hirt, Armstrong, Renay, The Beatles, The Rivieras, The Beach Boys. Louis Armstrong chased The Beatles for a few weeks with “Hello, Dolly!,” and ultimately got to #1 for a week or two (depending on which survey you trust more), and that was big pop news because Armstrong was an old jazz dude (63, not old compared to Paul and Ringo now, but old to be living among them in hitville) and hadn’t been on the singles chart for more than seven years, since he made a minor splash with “Blueberry Hill” (a reissue of a 1949 track, released to compete with the Fats Domino smash). “Hello, Dolly!’ stayed in the top 10 until June, hanging on as other Beatles records — and other British Invasion records — came and went, and still you look at those charts and wonder what on earth was happening.

It was the nature of hit radio then to be all-embracing. Even as The Beatles swept in and claimed a big chunk of airspace, there was still some room, as “Hello, Dolly!” hung around, for girl groups (The Dixie Cups), sophisticated Bacharach pop (Dionne Warwick), ska (Millie Small), Motown (Mary Wells), bossa nova (Stan Getz with Astrud Gilberto). Even so, the whole “Hello, Dolly!” thing was a curiosity. It was the title song from a Broadway musical, songs by Jerry Herman, but how many people who listened to WMCA and WABC even cared about that? Who was this Dolly person, where has she been, and who is this Louis (pronounced, by himself, as Lew-Iss, like Jerry, and not Lou-ee, like Prima), a virtual stranger to pop radio, although by most knowledgeable reckoning the most important musician of the 20th century? How unfair to us that this was our generation’s introduction (unless you were lucky, as I was, that his music was already in the LP collection) to Armstrong.

It’s a jaunty little jam, a snappy 148 seconds, most of it a swinging-enough Armstrong solo, but there’s something off-putting about it. the banjo-strummin’, the sketchy storyline. It makes me vaguely uncomfortable, the whole tone of it, even though there’s nothing overt happening: Dolly was away, now she’s returned (it’s like “Kitty’s Back” in that way), and Louis is happy about it for some reason. “Find her an empty lap, fellas!,” he commands, like he’s buying table dances for his pals, so it’s probably not his girlfriend. A party girl? I guess in the context of the musical, this let’s-hear-it-for-her razzamatazz makes some narrative sense — it is the name of the play — but something about the faux-Dixieland arrangement makes it all feel sort of minstrely, and look at those two top 10 lists up top: it’s the only record by a black artist in there at that moment, and it smacks not only of pre-rock & roll, not only pre-war pop, but of an older tradition. “The band’s playin’ one of our old favorite songs from way back when,” he sings. Yeah, way way back.

There were so many cover versions, and it won the Grammy for Song of the Year. Think about that for more than two minutes and your head will explode. Song. Of the Year. The year being 1964. OK, let’s factor in the anti-rock bias, so no Lennon & McCartney win (“A Hard Day’s Night” was nominated). What about “The Girl From Ipanema”? Other songs from 1964: “Under The Boardwalk,” “Dancing In The Street,” “Walk On By,” “Don’t Worry Baby”…pick any week, and there are twenty songs better than “Hello, Dolly!” I’m still stumped by this.

Herman tried to repeat the “Dolly!” formula with the song “Mame,” from the same-named musical, and Armstrong recorded that one also, and here’s where it gets even more convoluted. The original lyric contains this adorable couplet: “You make the cotton easy to pick, Mame/You give my old mint julep a kick, Mame.” And there are lines about the plantation humming and the old magnolia tree and “those banjos strummin’” (making overt what was implied in “Dolly!”). What is going on? She makes the cotton easy to pick? There’s also a reference to Mame having some responsibility for making “the South revive again.”

I would not want to have been the A&R person at Mercury Records whose job it was to present this song to Mr. Armstrong. “Uh, Satchmo, sir, you know that big hit you had two years ago, that ‘Dolly’ song? Well, here’s one by the same writer and it has that pop-Dixie feel…Oh, yeah…’the plantation,’ I can see where that might…right, that ‘cotton picking’ line, we can…Look, let me call the publisher on this, maybe…” In the end, Armstrong evaded the sticky issue: “You got the whole place hummin’ since you brought Dixie back to Dixieland” (not a hell of a lot better), and “You make your Louis [Lou-ee this time, as in ‘Louie, Louie’] feel like a king” in place of the potentially squirm-making cotton reference.

Browse through the Louis Armstrong ‘60s discography, and you can see that it was a wide-ranging decade for him. He appeared in the film Paris Blues. There was a long-overdue collaboration with Duke Ellington in ’61, and later that year a project with Dave Brubeck. And the “Dolly!” aftershock led to some interesting sessions and performances, including a set filmed in July 1965 for Shindig. He cut an album of Disney songs, and recorded “What A Wonderful World.” He did a country session in 1970, and the same year did a duet with Johnny Cash on “Blue Yodel Number 9” on Cash’s TV show. Until “What A Wonderful World” had its unexpected revival, his later years were mostly remembered for that time when he went head-to-head with The Beatles and knocked them out of the #1 spot for the first time since they’d claimed it in January 1964. That’s a nice statistic, but it isn’t a great record, There’s another Broadway tune on the flip of the Kapp single, and I’ve always liked it better; it’s from the first Broadway musical I ever saw, and it never fails to make me smile: “Satchmo’s got a lot of livin’ to do,” he says. Play it, Satch.


springsteen sings great songs, gets fans upset

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Bruce Springsteen and the E Street ensemble are wrapping up a swing through Australia and New Zealand, by all reports providing a rollicking good time, shaking up the set lists, doing a start-to-finish recreation of The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle, and throwing into the mix some unexpected covers, so you would think it would pretty much impossible for his fans to complain. And yet, there is a kvetchfest going on over at Backstreets, the Bruce-devoted website. Not from people who were physically in the room as these concerts were performed, mind you, but from fans at their computers studying the repertoire of each night’s show, and reacting as though something threatening the very existence of E Street Nation was going on on another continent.

Here is what you might come across:

“This is the first time since ever that I actually dislike something that he’s done.”

“If he isn’t careful he wil [sic] be come [sic] the joke act of the rock world.”

“He is acting a bit of an old fool on this tour.”

“Any credibility is long gone.”

What on earth could he have done to make the very ground upon which these admirers stand shake? There are Backstreets people who would do vicarious backflips if he’d decided to do a whole evening of the Human Touch and Lucky Town albums. If instead of the E Street Band, his backing group was Beaver Brown, there might be some rumblings, but it’d probably be ok. But what caused the board to sputter incoherently were his decisions to open a couple of sets with The Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” and Lorde’s “Royals.” My GOD! The Bee Gees! While Springsteen was working away on Darkness On The Edge Of Town, the Brothers Gibb were inescapable, and to some rock fans, were the representation of all that was destructive and demonic about “disco” (which, as we know “sucked”). There was this rock-disco divide in the late ‘70s, and here to revive the old fussin’ and feudin’ decades later, Springsteen, complete with string section, does a version that as seen on YouTube, seems like a whole mess of fun.

Cue the chorus.

“Is this the worst cover he’s ever done?”

“Embarrassingly bad.”

“Absolutely, atrocious. What’s next, Air Supply?”

There are idiots everywhere, on the internet especially, and it’s hardly worth pointing out that “Stayin’ Alive” is a Great Song. Beyond even that, if you just posted the lyrics on Backstreets, and no one knew it as a Gibb song, the idiots wouldn’t stop yakking about how classically Springsteenian the whole thing is: “Music loud and women warm, I’ve been kicked around since I was born,” “Feel the city breakin’ and everybody shakin’ and we’re stayin’ alive.” Change the tempo a bit, and he could have written this in 1977. Stayin’ alive is what like two dozen Springsteen songs are about, and his characters might not have put on white suits and worked out dance routines, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t find meaning and escape elsewhere.

No sooner did that flurry die down, than Springsteen came out another night with an acoustic guitar and covered Lorde’s “Royals.” The BS site didn’t crash, but there was a meltdown of sorts, because this is a current pop hit by a teenaged girl and how could Bruce demean himself by treating it as though it were a meaningful song that deserved a place in his own set list?? Again, we can all stipulate, I hope, that “Royals” is one of the best pop songs of the decade so far, and of course Springsteen sees in it themes that he’s tackled. Tell me these lines don’t sound like him: “And I’m not proud of my address, in a torn-up town,” “We’ll never be royals, it don’t run in our blood,” “We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.” Torn-up towns, blood, Cadillacs, dreams. It’s like Springsteen Mad Libs. So he’s in Lorde’s backyard, he knows a good song when he hears one, and he welcomes the crowd with a sincere, solo rendition. Let the outrage commence.

I’ve been to enough Springsteen shows in my lifetime to know that there is let’s say not a high level of sophistication in pockets of his audience. That’s all right. A Springsteen concert is nothing if not a democratic (lower and upper case) experience. Come one, come all and all that. But when I read those comments that focused on this perceived betrayal of rock values, whatever those are, I was kind of stunned. While he’s been down in that part of the world, he also covered The Easybeats. I don’t want to read a single world about what his most dense fans thought of that one.