getting out of tune

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iTunes has broken up with me. Not in any abrupt, declarative way, but more like someone who stops returning texts, unfriends on Facebook and always has something else going on. It’s like what Garfunkel and Oates call “The Fadeaway,” the passive, non-confrontational tactic. But I can’t say my feelings aren’t hurt; iTunes and I were so happy for a long time. I could organize my vast (200 days worth) of music into playlists that made perfect sense to me, download cool artwork to flip on my iTunes screensaver, carry thousands of songs in my jacket pocket, thousands of tracks that are unavailable anywhere else, from my collection of vinyl and illicit CD’s, complete live shows, alternate takes, out-of-circulation LPs. All I asked of iTunes was to be like a storage locker for my musical stuff, and if Apple had said, sure, but it’ll cost you a monthly rental fee to keep your tens of thousands of tracks exactly where you like them, that would have been worth more to me than a stupid subscription fee to stream Apple Music, which is of absolutely no value in my life. I’ve got my own music, thanks very much, and if I want to hear newer things or things I don’t possess, I can go over to Spotify, which as far as I can tell has no intention of tampering with my existing library. It’s a separate thing altogether, as it should be.

Friends and acquaintances who have “upgraded” (ha!) iTunes to gain access to Apple Music have recounted nightmares of tracks and playlists being vandalized, “duplicates” being deleted (that is, songs of the same title by the same artist, regardless if they’re alternate takes, demos, live versions; i Tunes has no time to make creative distinctions), inaccurate artwork being substituted, albums being chopped up into fragments. I realize that I use music differently than most normal people: right now, I’m working on one doo-wop-related project and one involving songs from Greenwich Village in the ’60s, so I’ve created multiple playlists of rare stuff, and I’d be appalled if Apple Music decided that it had better — i.e., remastered stereo, re-recordings — versions of some of those songs. I care very much about such matters, and iTunes/Apple Music does not give a damn. I also don’t want someone else “curating” playlists for me. I just put together about 75 tracks that center around a Small Faces axis, Humble Pie, Ronnie Lane & Pete Townshend, solo Marriott, Majik Mijits, and even if Apple Music has the Majik Mijits album, would it know to place it amidst Humble Pie’s Town and Country and Ron Wood & Ronnie Lane’s Mahoney’s Last Stand and Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance on the BBC? Color me skeptical.

And so it’s time for me to wake up and realize that iTunes just isn’t that into me anymore. I have my souvenirs, iPods in pretty much every room, filled with old playlists that will last as long as the iPods themselves survive. The iPod was the invention I’d been waiting for since I was a kid: a device that I could carry around everywhere, with thousands and thousands of songs that I’d selected and programmed, the satisfying click of the wheel, the serendipity of shuffle. The iTunes store was klnd of fun also, finding random songs that I’d been searching for, forking over 99 cents each and having them appear instantly in my library. Oh, I know we’re moving towards a streaming universe where, theoretically, everything is available on demand; the concept of music ownership is antiquated to most people. But first of all, “everything” is not available. I’d make a rough guess that of the 73,000 items in my iTunes library, 15-20% are not going to be found on Apple Music or any other service. And second of all, if everything — even this wildly inaccurate definition of everything — is available, and nothing is owned, the whole concept of a music collection becomes meaningless, which in a weird way means that my entire existence, in the High Fidelity sense, is meaningless. Music is autobiography, as the character in the Hornby novel implies when he decides to order his album collection in the sequence in which the albums were acquired. If Hornby ever gets around to writing that sequel he’s mentioned, this is something Rob is going to need to grapple with: the amorphous, cacophonous blur that online music has created.

I have a grief counselor coming over to make my iTunes break-up as smooth as possible; apparently there are other internet options — the word Plex has been bandied about — that will take a more hands-off attitude regarding what I choose to save and how I choose to save it. It’s a shame, really, because when it was working, iTunes was the ideal solution: import, organize, play. How hard is that? Don’t editorialize about the music, don’t assume that all those versions of Bob Dylan doing “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (mono album version, alternate versions, live in ’62, live with The Band, live with Wynton Marsalis…) are redundant and eliminate all but one on a Dylan boxed set. Don’t select album art for me. In a perfect relationship, we accept all of the other person’s quirks and eccentricities. iTunes decided, I guess, that I was too difficult, or obsessive. Sorry it didn’t work out.

the bard of the bronx

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The voice in the booth says “‘The Wanderer,’ take one,” and Dion says, “These lyrics get me.” Then he starts to sing: he’s the type of guy who will never settle down, he insists. Where pretty girls are, he’s around. He can’t be confined, not by relationships, obviously, but there’s something else going on, the desire to burst from the neighborhood, from expectations, to roam from town to town aimlessly, and unless you were a kid in the early ’60s (especially one in The Bronx, where the singer and the writer were from), you can’t imagine how dramatic the idea of “The Wanderer” was. Richard Price knew, and the song gave his first book its title, his street gang its identity and its theme song. Lou Reed knew, and quoted the song when he inducted Dion into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ernie Maresca wrote “The Wanderer” and created more than a hit; he created a character, a doo wop Neal Cassady, a streetcorner superhero. The Wanderer had Flo on his left arm and Mary on his right (like a dyslexic Diana Ross), and although he admits he’s goin’ nowhere, that itself was seductive.

Where were we going? To school, to the park, to the movies. We were goin’ nowhere, and even if we’d begun to think about girls in That Way, we had less than a clue what to do to get the attention of girls, or what to do if we got within range. Dion, through the words of Maresca, was a guide to attitude, and in other songs that they co-wrote, they were giving us a voice. I found “Lonely World” on the Runaround Sue album: “I’m just a fool who’s searchin’ for someone to care.” The next album had the staggering “Lovers Who Wander,” where Dion’s been dumped, and finds solace in what sounds like a support group for dumpees. “Look at me now,” he basically sneers. He’s the luckiest guy in the human race, and the chick is yesterday’s news. Dion, with Maresca, invented this lonely world for lovers who wander, an escape from girls like Runaround Sue, for example, someone who “goes out with other guys.”

“Here’s my story, it’s sad but true.” How is it possible that Dion DiMucci and/or Ernie Maresca are not in the Songwriters Hall of Fame? Dion, I trust, will get in there eventually (for God’s sake, he wrote “Born To Cry,” which was a Springsteen song waiting to happen, and “Little Diane,” and “Lost For Sure” and “Love Came To Me”…), but Maresca, who passed away this month, if he did nothing else but co-write “Runaround Sue” with Dion and “The Wanderer” on his own, should be more recognized as someone who gave the early ’60s some sharkskin snap. As a singer, well, let’s just say he had enthusiasm — his one hit, ‘Shout! Shout! (Knock Yourself Out)” was a raucous Dion-Gary U.S. Bonds pastiche with the twist drums that you heard everywhere in ’62 — but apart from his writing catalog with Dion, he came up with some inspired one-offs: “Whenever A Teenager Cries” by Reparata and The Delrons (confession: I just like typing “Reparata and The Delrons”), the party-time “Hey Jean, Hey Dean” by, you guessed it, Dean and Jean, and The Regents’ great follow-up to “Barbara Ann,” “Runaround.” “Runaround” hit the charts right before “Runaround Sue,” and if anyone asked me what the post-Dion & The Belmonts doo-wop sound of The Bronx sounded like, I’d play them this 45. It’s pure chaos, “Bomm-bomm-bomm” intro, leading into a bunch of voices, some falsetto, banging into each other, and the hook is essentially the word “runaround” broken into nonsense components, “rundy-rundy-rundy,” and then some screechy strings. “What a love this is!,” lead singer Guy Villari exclaims. “You’re ruining everything!” They may have been Italian, but the kvetching was familiar to the Jewish boys as well.

Maresca was a ’60s song hustler (another one of those guys, Billy Meshel, also died recently, and Reparata and The Delrons — see? — did one of his charmingly bizarre songs, “That’s What Sends Men To The Bowery”), and through his association with Laurie Records, he had cuts with The Chiffons (the atypically lyrical “Up On The Bridge”), Carlo from The Belmonts, The Four Coins, Bernadette Carroll. A nice sampling of those tracks can be found on The Laurie Records Story Vol. 2: The Ernie Maresca Years, and on the Ace comp pictured above. But the songs that seal his legacy are “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer,” songs that Dion seized with a fervor that no one has matched in more than a half-century of covers. For years, I’d wondered what a Bruce Springsteen version of “The Wanderer” would sound like, since that early solo-Dion sound, with growling saxophone and feeling of busting loose, straining to make an assertive noise, was so much a part of the Springsteen ethos. He finally took a shot at it in 2009 in Des Moines, Iowa, of all the unlikely places. It was a sign-request, and the E Street Band don’t quite have a handle on it — it takes almost three minutes to figure it out — but Van Zandt unlocks it, and by the second verse, it begins to jell, Clarence Clemons takes his solo, Bruce yells ‘Bridge!” and they bring it to a cool wrap-up. Honestly, has Springsteen himself written lyrics as Springsteenian as Maresca’s? “And when I find myself fallin’ for some girl/I hop right into that car of mine and drive around the world.” Is it any wonder a generation of boys heard that song and, as loserish as they may have been in actual life, felt empowered?

rags, blues, jugs and kazoos

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This weekend marks the semicentennial of the moment that plunged the silver dagger into the heart of the purist folk revival, when Bob Dylan and his recruits plugged some instruments into amplifiers at the Newport Folk Festival. That’s what Newport Folk ’65 is best-known for, that act of heresy, or commercial capitulation, or outright perversity, but a lot of other acts played that weekend as well, including a group of musicians who showed up this week at City Winery in New York City to revisit the more playful side of ’60s folk. Jim Kweskin, Geoff Muldaur and Maria Muldaur (then Maria D’Amato) of Kweskin’s Jug Band were joined by John Sebastian of the shorter-lived Even Dozen Jug Band (he was calling himself John Benson), and the set skipped merrily through the garden of joy that we now call “Americana”: blues, folk, ragtime, fragments of western swing and le jazz hot, songs by the Mississippi Sheiks and Leiber & Stoller. The assemblage did “The Sheik of Araby” from the 1920s, and songs that Sebastian wound up adapting for the Lovin’ Spoonful: “Fishin’ Blues,” “Blues In The Bottle,” “Wild About My Lovin’,” and it was obvious that The Spoonful weren’t the only group who took things from the Kweskin outfit (or other jug bands); The Band and the early Grateful Dead swam in the same musical stream, and if The Beatles didn’t pick up “Sheik of Araby” from Kweskin, it’s safe to guess that they found it through the parallel U.K. trad and skiffle scenes, like the mid-’50s version by Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen and Skiffle Group.

The music of the Kweskin band — and the Even Dozen, where Maria D’Amato started, and Steve Katz did time before joining The Blues Project — was a kick because it pulled in songs from everywhere: Maria found “I’m A Woman” through Peggy Lee, the band’s one album on Reprise put Lead Belly right next to Ellington, and right from the start, on the Jug Band Music LP, they did Chuck Berry’s “Memphis.” That crazy-American-quilt approach continued through the albums Geoff and Maria made as a duo — Skip James, Hoagy Carmichael & Johnny Mercer, Chuck Berry all represented on Sweet Potatoes — and the first batch of albums Maria did on her own. Mention her to most people and they might know “Midnight At The Oasis” from her solo debut, but that 1973 album’s warmth, sexiness and breadth of musicality is a wide-ranging delight, from Ry Cooder’s playing on the opening track, Jimmie Rodgers’ “Any Old Time,” to the swing and sway of Dan Hicks’ “Walking One and Only” to Mac Rebennack’s sultry horn arrangements. On the follow-up albums, she clicks with big band charts by Benny Carter, finds lovely Wendy Waldman and McGarrigle songs, channels The Boswell Sisters, has Hoagy himself come in for some harmony, sings Smokey Robinson and Allen Toussaint.

Maybe it was the “jug band” tag that limited these groups. Face it, if that band in San Francisco with Jerry Garcia, Pigpen and Bob Weir had stayed Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions (doing songs the Kweskin band did like “Viola Lee,” “Crazy Words, Crazy Tune,” “Beedle Um Bum” and “Memphis”), I’m fairly sure they wouldn’t be selling out a Chicago stadium in 2015. Sebastian figured out that those tunes from the Kweskin songbook (and “On The Road Again,” which the Even Dozen group did) could be electrified and repositioned as rock and roll (as Sebastian mentioned to Geoff Muldaur on stage, his band’s version of “Fishin’ Blues” actually sold some copies), and Katz’s next move after the Even Dozens was to be the sweet-voiced folk singer in an electric blues band. The Youngbloods’ debut had some of the feel of the Kweskin band, with the ’20s-sounding “Grizzly Bear” and songs by Blind Willie McTell and Mississippi John Hurt. “Jug band” was an antiquated notion, and really, the Kweskin outfit wasn’t that jug-heavy. What if they’d have stuck it out and become like an east coast Mamas & Papas?

’67’s Garden of Joy looks like a try at branding the band’s good time music (a Spoonful tag line, but surely applicable here also) as sunshiny flower-pop (“The Jim Kweskin Jug Band Doing Their Things In The Garden of Joy), but even the savvy Warners-Reprise marketing and art direction crew couldn’t trick people into buying an album of old-timey acoustic jazzy-folk (the first track is an ode to smoking reefer, but in a hipster rather than hippie way). So it got lost, quietly, in the haze of that psychedelic year when banjos and violins, even in the skilled hands of Bill Keith and Richard Greene, were slightly out of time. The three original members of the band did a few songs from that album at their show the other night, the title track, Maria’s spotlight “I Ain’t Gonna Marry,” “The Sheik of Araby,” “If You’re A Viper,” as well as other jug band staples like “Stealin’.” One cool thing about being slightly out of time: you never have to worry about being out of fashion.

the endless saga of sleepy jean

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Micky Dolenz has a nightclub act now, and there were moments at the show at 54 Below, a midtown NYC cabaret, that were like Al Pacino in Danny Collins, seniors at ringside swaying and singing along with the catchier oldies. There was a big fan-club contingent, and they didn’t miss a lyric on even slightly-more-obscure Monkees tunes like “Goin’ Down” and “Randy Scouse Git.” It’s a fun show, probably not unlike when the pop singers from the late ’50s and ’60s would book a prestige gig at the Copa and prove their versatility by throwing some standards into the mix (Dolenz brought “Some Enchanted Evening” and “But Not For Me” to the party, so Rodgers & Hammerstein and the Gershwins shared time with Boyce & Hart and Goffin & King). I’d have liked to hear a few more ’60s things, maybe “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone” or “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” (he did do “As We Go Along” from Head), but I guess for those you have to go to a Monkees gig. Something for certain: Micky now has possession of “Daydream Believer” and will have to sing it at every performance he gives for the rest of his life, and people will feel a swell of giddiness and the urge to at least lip-sync along. It’s a happiness bubble, this little tune, and now that Davy Jones has gone, taking with him that hi-dee-ho shuffle imitated by everyone from Axl Rose to Tina Fey, no one will ever walk into a Dolenz show and think, “I wonder if he’ll do ‘Daydream Believer’?”

It was never a likely thing, but I was sort of hoping that “Daydream Believer” would be bequeathed to Mike Nesmith, and that he would do it more the way the late John Stewart, who wrote the thing, used to do it, as reflective country-folk, less flighty and feathery than it was in the hands of Davy. I realize I am quite alone in this, that “Daydream Believer” by The Monkees is a pure late-’67 pop confection, perfect in its way, and that when people think of it, what they’re hearing in their heads is Davy’s show-biz pizazz. But that was always my least favorite element of The Monkees, Davy’s self-aware twinkle, the way he’d caress his moony ballads with a fake sincerity designed to make the girls get all dreamy-eyed. He could be passable on “Valleri” and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,” but there wasn’t a song he did with the group that I didn’t think Micky would have done better, and Micky wasn’t even the most talented Monkee. Still, everyone loves “Daydream Believer,” and why not? It’s got that “Cheer up, sleepy Jean!” hook and so-simple verses, and that baroque-psych-pop instrumental bridge. Like “Happy Together,” it sounds more cheery than it actually is lyrically; when Stewart wrote it, the line went “Now you know how funky I can be,” to undercut “You once thought of me as a white knight on a steed,” and the small adjustment changed the whole tone. In Stewart’s versions, the “daydream believer and a homecoming queen” might have had a few hopes busted. But that would have never been a single that spent a month at #1.

“It started out as a suburbia trilogy,” Stewart said in a 2006 interview you can find online through The Archives of Music Preservation. “I almost scrapped it.” Then he played it for Chip Douglas, who was producing The Monkees. Douglas told him the song was green-lit, with the provision that “funky” be changed to “happy.” Stewart said, “That doesn’t even make sense.” But Stewart had played the song for We Five and Spanky and Our Gang and both groups (or their A&R people, more likely) passed on it, so he agreed to let Davy sing “happy,” and off it went. Without “happy,” The Monkees wouldn’t have cut it. With “happy,” it’s a song that Patti Smith, The Edge, Shonen Knife and Paul Westerberg have performed without a scintilla of distance or irony, because what the song conveys (as opposed to what it says) is innocence and optimism. You hear the opening notes — most of the time it’s kicked off with some variation of the piano intro that Peter Tork does on the single — and it sweeps you in, like it could be a Paul McCartney or Brian Wilson song.

It must have been a huge single in Japan, because if you poke around looking for “Daydream Believer” YouTube videos, you’re going to come across many Japanese versions in all genres (random list: Takeshi Hosomi, Ken Yokoyama, Oatmeal — this one is like speed metal-pop with hints of The Bee Gees’ “New York Mining Disaster 1941″ for some reason — Sakura Gakuin). One of the sweetest is a slow, bilingual version by Priscilla Ahn, who finds the melancholy in the melody, gives the song wistful longing that you don’t usually find in it, not in the awkward too-literal covers by Anne Murray and Boyzone, the utterly hapless take by Susan Boyle, the shameless corn of the version on Glee. For a moment at the Dolenz show, you might wish he and his piano player would pare it down, reduce the pep factor, get back to the song in there that peeks through in Ahn’s version, or when Patti Smith does it, or even in Westerberg’s cracked live versions. But that will never happen, because for one thing, the audience will simply not stand for it. What they want is the release of serotonin that comes as the seven-bah-note lift-off bangs into the hook and they get a chance to join in. In Danny Collins, Pacino’s title character books an intimate gig to try out some new, reflective material, and all his audience clamors for is “Hey Baby Doll,” the song that gets them waving their arms in unison. Until he hangs it all up, “Daydream Believer” is going to be Micky Dolenz’s “Hey Baby Doll.” He’ll never escape it. It’s his inheritance, his destiny to look into the eyes of fans, point the mic at them, have them clap on the wrong beat and keep, for all time, encouraging sleepy Jean to cheer the fuck up already.

is anybody going to san antone?

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I kicked in some cash yesterday for a crowd-funded documentary about Doug Sahm directed by Texas music maven Joe Nick Patoski, and the same day’s mail brought me a copy of a new CD on the hypercool label The Numero Group, Royal Jesters: English Oldies, so musically-geographically I’ve spent the last 24 hours in and around San Antonio. One thing about acquiring and absorbing music on a pretty constant basis is that I’m always amazed by how much I don’t know, all the music that somehow has managed to slip past me, things that I have to guess I would never discover through all the sophisticated algorithms of streaming services like Apple and Spotify. What use are they to me? Are they going to connect the dots between Sahm and the guy who sang lead for the Royal Jesters, named Dimas Garza, who also for a while had a doo-wop group called Dino & The Dell-Tones? Will they point me in the direction of Garza’s other efforts in The Lyrics, or introduce me to Rudy & The Reno Bops or Charlie & The Jives, groups I never heard of until yesterday and whose music I would be stunned to find on any streaming service? There is more access to more music in more places than there ever has been, and yet somehow there are all these holes in my knowledge, and believe me, I’ve been paying intense attention for a very long time. How did I never stumble on the Royal Jesters before, or know they did versions of The Five Keys’ “Wisdom of A Fool” (which isn’t even on the new compilation), Evie Sands’ (by way of Trade Martin) “Take Me For A Little While,” and The Royalettes’ (via Teddy Randazzo) “I Want To Meet Her”? English Oldies is filled with surprises: it’s got a Tex-Mex sexy grind, elements of soul and doo wop. Their “What’cha Gonna Do About It” isn’t anything like the Doris Troy original, or The Small Faces’ cover; it’s like, what?, Pachuco-Garage-R&B? Is that a thing?

The very informative Royal Jesters booklet has a photo of an ad for a “Big Easter Show & Dance,” from what year I don’t know (’63?), but it sure looks like it was fun. The RJ’s are down at the bottom of the bill. Up on top are Joe Barry and someone I hadn’t heard of named Big Sambo, so of course I had to find out more, so with a few clicks I learned that, A) Mr. Sambo’s group was The House Wreckers, B) He worked with the legendary Huey F. Meaux, and C) the B-side of his Eric single “At The Party” was Meaux’s “The Rains Came,” which I know from The Sir Douglas Quintet. I can’t explain why finding stuff like that out is such a kick for me, but there you have it. On the row right under the pics of Clay and Big Sambo is one of Kenner Records recording artist Doug Sahm (billed with his group The Starmarks and identified by what I guess was his San Antonio hit “Two Hearts In Love”). Also on the show, the aforementioned Charlie & the Jives and Rudy & The Reno Boys. Another internet search, and that’s how you can easily blow a day.

One place I checked out calls Garza “one of the unsung heroes of sixties Chicano Soul,” which is a really specific thing to be, and from what I can discern, it appears to be true. He was all over the place as a singer and writer, jumping from label to label and group to group (there are tracks on the English Oldies album by something named Dimas III), but never had any crossover success, so it’s up to enterprising folks like the good people over at The Numero Group to give his career some context, provide a starting point. And to people like Joe Nick to try and kickstart (literally) interest and recognition of Doug Sahm who, unlike Garza, did have broad, or at least broader, impact. I wrote recently about the insane amount of memorable music from 1965, that explosive cultural moment when hit records were flying at the listener from all directions, when “The Tracks of My Tears,” “Wooly Bully” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” all made perfect pop sense. In the spring of that year, “She’s About A Mover” by The Sir Douglas Quintet was released, fake-British name attached (no one was fooled for a second), and I’d say it didn’t sound like anything else on the radio, but one thing about ’65 was that almost nothing sounded like anything else. I suppose it was kind of like Sam The Sham & The Pharaoh’s smash, and they both made their debut on the Billboard singles chart the same week, but I don’t remember anyone talking about The Great Farfisa Invasion of April ’65.

Part of the Sahm Kickstarter campaign involves a petition to get him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in that regard I wish them well but I’m not holding my breath. That organization’s blind spots are not so much “spots” as massive blackouts. How can you explain to people who might barely remember “She’s About A Mover” and possibly “Mendocino” (some Rock Fan friends of mine tuned that out as soon as they heard Sahm’s opening sung line, “Teeny-bopper, my teenage lover,” not because they thought anything inappropriate was going on, but because “teeny-bopper” = “bubble-gum”) that Sahm’s freewheeling eclectic approach to roots music of all stripes was soulful and significant, that his records — from his earliest singles to his albums with the “supergroup” Texas Tornados — were wildly fun? You can start anywhere, with the Quintet’s Tribe records, or ’71’s The Return of Doug Saldana, or the Atlantic albums, and be won over. One of my favorites is his 1989 solo album Juke Box Music, an affectionate exploration of the music that shaped him. He could have played some of these songs (“I’m A Fool To Care,” “Talk To Me,” “Buzz Buzz Buzz”) at that San Antonio show where he shared the bill with the Royal Jesters. Whatever happens Hall of Fame-wise, thanks for all the beautiful vibrations.

nina simone’s encyclopedia of songs

UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 01:  Photo of Nina SIMONE;   (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)

There’s a remarkable, gut-wrenching video of Nina Simone from 1976 at the Montreux Jazz Festival. It runs for nearly 10-1/2 minutes, the camera right in her face for most of the time. Some moments, it’s like you’re watching someone unravel in front of an audience, and it’s almost too much to sit through, and others are flashes of what Simone was always capable of, mingling blues, soul jazz, gospel and pop into one searing voice, although “mingling” is maybe the wrong word. It’s like she doesn’t even see those as separate elements to combine (“I call it black classical music,” she said); there’s no division for her. One YouTube clip of this performance has been viewed nearly 2,500,000 times the last I looked, and while that isn’t much on the One Direction meter, it’s a lot for an artist like Nina Simone, who’s been gone for a dozen years and was never wildly popular in her prime, the 1960s and early ’70s, when she recorded more than twenty albums for Colpix, Philips and RCA. With a Netflix documentary premiering this week, and related press (a big New York Times story this weekend), and an album of contemporary artists paying tribute (Lauryn Hill’s “Feeling Good” has already been sent out into the world), Nina Simone views and streams are bound to spike, and more people are going to discover that Montreux performance. The song is the easy-listening Morris Albert smash “Feelings,” so anyone searching for “Feeling Good” might well stumble on it, click, and get sucked in.

“Feelings”? Well, that’s where the whole Nina Simone thing gets very complicated. Because what people know about her, through the cultural filter, is that she was a strong, defiant musician, a voice of the Civil Rights Movement, the “High Priestess of Soul” whose repertoire was laced with fire: “Backlash Blues,” “Mississippi Goddamn” (Is it too late to get a South Carolina version on the new tribute album? Probably.), “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” “Four Women,” “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free.” Or maybe they know “Feeling Good,” “I Put A Spell On You” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (the latter two adopted by The Animals, among others), or her bouncy version of “My Baby Just Cares For Me” from her debut. The closest equivalent I can think of in terms of sheer genre-range is Ray Charles, but even he didn’t make the kinds of hairpin turns Simone could. High Priestess of Soul (RCA, 1967) zips from Chuck Berry to Duke Ellington to “Work Song” and “Take Me To The Water.” The same album that has “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel To Be Free” has “The Look of Love” and “Cherish.” In 1968, right after Martin Luther King was assassinated, she recorded a live album that’s filled with sorrow and anger (“Sunday In Savannah,” “Backlash Blues,” “Why [The King of Love Is Dead]”), alongside a couple of Bee Gees songs, something from Hair, a Gershwin tune, “Take My Hand Precious Lord,” and a lovely Jimmy Webb ballad. Who would dare? Who could pull that off? Charles, maybe? Aretha in ’68?

She did a bunch of Dylan songs, more George Harrison than Lennon & McCartney songs (on Emergency Ward, she makes soul-protest epics out of “My Sweet Lord” and “Isn’t It A Pity”). One album, Here Comes The Sun, has “Just Like A Woman,” “Mr. Bojangles” and “My Way,” and how do you make sense out of that? Even “Feeling Good,” one of her signature pieces, comes from an unlikely place: it’s by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, from their musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of The Crowd. Simone covered Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” and Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” and later on, in 1978, did Hall & Oates’s “Rich Girl.” That show at Montreux, where “Feelings” becomes an agonizing psychodrama, also includes a scattered but intense reading of Janis Ian’s “Stars” that’s like a musical ’70s Cassavettes film, self-indulgent and rambling, but with flashes of such raw emotion that you can’t look away. With Simone, it didn’t matter how high the schlock quotient; here was someone who could find (or at least look for) depth in Jonathan King’s “Everyone’s Gone To The Moon.”

The only time I saw Nina Simone live was in a hotel ballroom in 1993 at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, headlining a bill that also included McCoy Tyner. She was pre-promoting a new studio album, her first in a long time, A Single Woman (on Elektra), and I remember her being irritated, just in general. Maybe at the crowd, or the venue. It was a performance that keeps you in knots: Is this going to go well? Is she even going to stay on the stage? A Single Woman is an odd thing to begin with. There are three Rod McKuen songs on it, including the title track, and something from Yentl. Also in the mix, three standards, “The Folks Who Live On The Hill,” “The More I See You” and “If I Should Lose You.” That’s the deal you make with Nina Simone, and it’s what makes her legacy such a jumble. At the Jazz Fest concert, I was anxious, because I finally was in a room (albeit an acoustically-challenged hall designed for banquets and testimonial dinners) with the great Nina Simone, a one-time opportunity, and I wanted it to go well, but she kept slipping in and out of focus. This album and tour were orchestrated to be a comeback, and bar was so high. Every so often, something would snap into place, and then she’d meander off again. At least that’s how I recall it. I go back to the album now, and time’s been kind to it, McKuen, the Bergmans and all. And I went over to Spotify and found this final Simone album had been expanded with outtakes: The Beatles, Prince, Bob Marley, and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself A Letter.” Of course: to the end, she pulled from everywhere and Simoned everything she touched.

june 1965

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It’s mid-June 1965, and school is almost done, and you’re one of those kids who are glued (it might as well be literally) to the radio. In the New York City vicinity, there are a few Top 40 options, and depending on the time of the day and which dj’s shift it is, you’re tuned to one or the other on your crappy little mono device, one tinny plug nestled in your ear canal. In the afternoon, WMCA has a chart countdown, so you know precisely where each of your fave 45s lands in the Hierarchy of Pop, and since you aren’t aware of such things as payola and promotion and industry favors and all that, you take this listing quite seriously, as though there was some measurable distance between let’s say the #14 single (and former “sure shot” and ‘MCA local premiere) “Back In My Arms Again” by The Supremes and the one jumping up to #12, Bacharach & David’s “What The World Needs Now Is Love” as sung by Jackie DeShannon. This was a half-century ago this week and you might say it was Pop’s pinnacle, and the week in question does not even have a single by The Beatles in the Top 50, and “Like A Rolling Stone” hasn’t been released yet.

That’s how great the summer of ’65 was: there could be a week without The Beatles on the radio and still be a snapshot of an insane creative explosion. In the top 10: Motown (The Four Tops at #1 with “I Can’t Help Myself”), soul (Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, The Marvelows), British bands (The Stones, The Yardbirds), “Mr. Tambourine Man” by The Byrds, “Wooly Bully” by Sam The Sham and The Pharaohs. No wonder we couldn’t shut off the radio. We could switch over to one of the other stations if Lenny Welch or The Letterman turned up in WMCA’s rotation, and when we switched back, there might be something new and exciting: “I Want Candy” by The Strangeloves, Ian Whitcomb’s “You Turn Me On.” Even Elvis had a good single out, “(Such An) Easy Question” from the cinematic escapade Tickle Me. And slipping out of the Top 10, The Beach Boys’ “Help Me, Rhonda.”

It’s commonplace among a certain generation to rhapsodize about a musical world where The Beau Brummels, The Jive Five and The Kinks all hang out together, weeks where, way down at the bottom of the chart, records by The Dave Clark Five, Little Anthony & The Imperials and Wilson Pickett are about to start their ascent, where Tom Jones, Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders and (posthumously) Sam Cooke are clumped together and there are new 45s by The 4 Seasons and Johnny Rivers. But if you weren’t around in the early summer of 1965, what would you make of this moment, and wouldn’t you wish that we would please shut the fuck up about this “golden age”? Wouldn’t you want to send the lot of us off on that insane “Flower Power Cruise” where members of Herman’s Hermits, The Monkees, Paul Revere & The Raiders, The Turtles and The Grass Roots are entertaining a ship of boomers, just let that peace’n’love boat drop off the end of the world so at last no one has to listen anymore to “Happy Together” and “Daydream Believer” (can you imagine the amount of crowd-karaoke on that vessel?). It was a half-century ago!! Did people in 1965 still reminisce about those glorious musical days of the First World War?

So, guilty. But here’s what’s going on: There’s a play about The Kinks (#32, “Set Me Free”) currently on the West End. The Brian Wilson (#18, “Help Me, Rhonda”) biopic is in theaters and getting nice reviews. A band called The Rolling Stones (#5 “[I Can’t Get No] Satisfaction”) is playing this week at a stadium in Nashville. Jersey Boys (#40, “Girl Come Running”) is still drawing crowds in midtown U.S.A., and the life and music of Bert Berns (#33, “I Want Candy”) is the subject of another musical (Piece of My Heart). This isn’t going away. Sorry. And sorry for a chart that has slots for Robert Goulet and Ronnie Dove. That’s the trade-off of the musical welcome mat at WMCA’s door. I guarantee, however, that if you make a playlist of the 57 songs on the June 16, 1965 chart, start with The Four Tops and end with Dino, Desi & Billy, you’ll hear stuff that will knock you out, beyond the songs you’ve long ago tired of. Have you heard Billy Stewart’s “Sitting In The Park” lately, or “Do The Boomerang” by Jr. Walker & The All-Stars? Do you know how terrific “Just A Little” by The Beau Brummels and “Concrete and Clay” by The Unit 4+2 are? Maybe The Chiffons’ psych-pop-girl-group-epic “Nobody Knows What’s Goin’ On (In My Mind But Me)” (#17) has escaped you over the fifty years of its existence. Lucky you. You get to hear it for the first time.

close up the honky tonks

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The Everly Brothers’ Roots came out in 1968. Its first song, after a snippet of a 1952 radio program with The Everly Family, was a cover of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” and its penultimate track was Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home.” I played that album nearly as much as I listened to The Byrds’ Sweetheart of The Rodeo, which included Gram Parsons singing lead vocals on Haggard’s “Life In Prison.” So that was how Merle Haggard made his way into my record collection, and early in 1969, I bought a copy of Pride In What I Am by Merle Haggard and The Strangers, their eighth album, which meant that I had a lot of backtracking to do, circling around to Swinging Doors, Sing Me Back Home, all the way in reverse to his impressive 1965 debut Strangers. He had a run of a dozen straight top 5 country singles (most #1) from ’65 through ’69, and damned if you can’t program them in sequence — and start with ’64’s #10 “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers” for a bonus — and come out with maybe the best country album of the decade: “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive,” “Branded Man,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “Mama Tried,” “I Take A Lot of Pride In What I Am,” “Working Man Blues” and a batch of others, ending with “Okie From Muskogee.”

A tricky one, that last chart-topper, because coming out in the post-Woodstock September of 1969, it was a dismissal of the counter-culture, the anti-war students, the pot-smoking hippies. Haggard had written a flag-waving defense of Nixon’s “great silent majority” (although Nixon wouldn’t uncork that phrase until that November), in the middle of the Vietnam mess, and how could it be ok to be ok with Haggard who, it seemed, was against everything we were for (e.g., smoking marijuana, making a “party out of lovin’,” all that)? But you know what? It was fine: The Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram on lead vocal, did “Sing Me Back Home,” The Grateful Dead took a stab at “Mama Tried” many times (and “Okie” at least once at the Fillmore East, with The Beach Boys), and The Dead’s countrified colleagues The New Riders of The Purple Sage bravely attempted “Working Man Blues” even though Marmaduke and his band were not remotely in the same league as Merle and his Strangers. Haggard built his soapbox a few crates higher with the follow-up “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” even more confrontational, and you could see it as cynical Agnewish red meat if you like, but he got that out of his system and made a Bob Wills tribute album in 1970 that expunged any sins.

That period, ’68-’70ish, was when I entered Haggard country, but I didn’t see him live until April 1974 when he played Felt Forum in NYC. It may’ve been my first “real” Country Show (the twangy rock bands that played Fillmore East didn’t count), and then it was almost twenty years until the next time I caught him (at Tramps), followed in another decade or so by an opening set for Bob Dylan at the Beacon. Lately, I’ve been thinking I need to see him one more time, but he’s been elusive: this week he was in Englewood, NJ, and I couldn’t schlep out there. The end of June finds him in Westbury and in Atlantic City, but I don’t think I have the means to get out to those gigs, so in the meantime I’ve been listening to a lot of his older albums, and to the new duets set with Willie Nelson, the reflective, comfortably creaky Django and Jimmie. There’s a one-more-round feeling on this album, a summing up: they sing about their influences, Reinhardt and Rodgers, on the title track, reminisce about Johnny Cash, sing an old Dylan song, trade stories about bad behavior (“The Only Man Wilder Than Me,” “Live This Long”). They revisit Haggard’s honky-tonk standard “Swinging Doors,” and Nelson’s even more-vintage “Family Bible.”

On one track, “Somewhere Between,” it’s Willie on his own, but otherwise the two might as well be in adjoining rocking chairs: Haggard just turned 78 in April, Nelson hit 82 the same month, and they have nothing to prove. They can relax, cut fourteen songs in a few days. They aren’t Outlaws, or Highwaymen, or God knows, Older-Bro-Country guys. I’d say it’s easy to be yourself when you’re legends who don’t have to worry about making radio songs, but the truth is, I don’t think they ever gave one crap, even when they were having hits. When I got the copy of Pride In What I Am that was the building block of my Haggard vinyl collection, it wasn’t only because The Byrds and The Everly Brothers gave me license to cross over into the Country lane. I took one look at that cover, Haggard and his crew in some hobo jungle, smoking cigarettes, mean and defiant, Haggard staring into the camera lens, looking like John Garfield in a ’40s Warner Brothers film, holding a wickedly cool guitar, and that was enough. Plus, the band was called The Strangers. I heard Haggard originals that I still return to, “The Day The Rains Came,” “I’m Bringin’ Home Good News,” and songs by Lefty Frizzell and Jimmie Rodgers. When “Okie From Muskogee” came out later that year, I was already on the Haggard train, and I really didn’t mind that he wouldn’t like my long and shaggy hair. Anyway, maybe he was kidding, right?

the goodbye melodies

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Twice during the seven-season run of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner used Mr. Acker Bilk’s elegiac “Stranger On The Shore,” and when I think about the show, that’s one of the music cues that pops into my head. It’s instantly evocative of the ’60s before The British Invasion, the Kennedy Years. It feels like sunset, seen from a sailboat off the coast of Hyannis Port. Some people call that period of time Camelot, but that seems altogether too regal and antiquated to me, a word that fails to capture how modern everything felt, how alive, maybe especially if you were a kid discovering pop music, which I was. Even something as simply pretty as the melody Mr. Bilk played on his clarinet had romance in it, and what is romance but the heart’s expression of potential? On Top 40 radio — the stations I listened to in New York City, WMCA, WABC, WINS — the disc jockeys would play instrumentals often, to transition into the news, to end one dj’s shift and start another, and the air was filled with songs without words in 1962 and 1963: “Telstar,” The Stripper,” “Green Onions,” “Alley Cat,” “A Swingin’ Safari.”

’62 was also the year of Nelson Riddle’s “Theme From Route 66,” with all its thrilling pop momentum, “The Lonely Bull,” the first hit by Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass, “Desafinado” by Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd, which brought Bossa Nova to Top 40, the trad jazz of Kenny Ball’s “Midnight In Moscow,” “Walk On The Wild Side” by Jimmy Smith, “Rinky Dink” by Dave “Baby” Cortez. String a bunch of these records together in a playlist, and throw in some Ace Cannon, Marketts, King Curtis (the durable “Soul Twist”) and you have a snapshot of 1962 without a single lyric being sung. Housewives doing conservative bumps and grinds to David Rose’s “The Stripper,” bar mitzvahs where the band played “A Swingin’ Safari” and suburban Jews danced to “Alley Cat.” You get hints of what was on TV (that Route 66 theme, and the “Theme From Ben Casey“), what was around the cultural corner (the Brazilian wave, the California sound of “Surfer’s Stomp,” the Memphis soul of “Green Onions,” Herb Alpert’s juggernaut), and you hear the waning but still prevalent beat of the twist.

When Vin Scelsa, who had been on east coast radio for close to five decades, did his sign-off show, one of the tracks he played was “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” by The Vince Guaraldi Trio. His colleague Dennis Elsas used to end his shift with that instrumental, and I hadn’t heard it in ages, but it was an instant memory jolt, from Elsas’s show, certainly, but also from when it was a hit single in the winter of ’62-’63. Tracks like that could become pop hits then: this was Brazilian-influenced West Coast Jazz, on an indie label based in the Bay Area (Fantasy Records), and was a cut on an album that was mostly made up of jazz interpretations of songs written for the film Black Orpheus (“Samba de Orpheus” was the 45’s B-side). For the first minute or so, it’s a straight-forward tune that Guaraldi plays without flourish, but then it takes a turn and starts to swing in a way that would become part of the mainstream musical vernacular when Guaraldi started composing for the Peanuts TV specials. There’s just something so groovy and delightful about this: I didn’t know much about jazz then (I was, like not even twelve years old), or anything about the concept of Cool Jazz, but it felt sophisticated compared to most of what was around it on WMCA. More grown-up than let’s say Marcie Blaine’s “Bobby’s Girl.” Not that I wasn’t glued to everything the WMCA Good Guys would play for me in late ’62.

That’s something that’s completely gone, the hit instrumental. But in 1962 and into 1963, those songs were an important element in the pop mix: “Washington Square” by The Village Stompers, “More” by Kai Winding, Jack Nitzsche’s moody “The Lonely Surfer,” teen things like “Wild Weekend,” surf hits like “Pipeline,” guitar gods Duane Eddy and Lonnie Mack, novelties like “Yakety Sax.” If you were tuned to the radio then, as Martin Scorsese was, there was nothing at all unusual about it; Scorsese used the mostly-wordless “El Watusi” (1961) in his first feature, 1967’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door, and in his most recent film, 2013’s The Wolf Of Wall Street, he cues up “Cast Your Fate To The Wind,” the Allen Toussaint version, to wrap things up. It’s a goodbye melody.

And it’s been covered a lot, as an instrumental, and with a lyric by Carel Werber. The lyric is ok, and there are some nice recordings of that enhanced song (Johnny Rivers, June Christy, the Sandpipers, the minor hits by Steve Alaimo and Shelby Flint), but the words are superfluous, as they almost always are when they’re grafted onto a hit instrumental (“Stranger On The Shore” is not helped one bit by making things more literal, and you do not want to hear any of the vocal attempts at “Telstar”). It’s best when it’s just played sans frills, by Chet Atkins on guitar, by The Ramsey Lewis Trio with a more pronounced Latin sway, by The Roy Meriwether trio, who find a little connection to “La Bamba” in it. Or if you must hear words, you could try French ones. But there’s something about the original that’s more seductive; it sounds like it’s something Guaraldi’s been noodling around with, that he had this piece of melody and, after cutting a batch of those Black Orpheus tunes and needed a few things to round out the LP, he suggested to his bassist (Monty Budwig) and drummer (Colin Bailey), “Hey, let’s cut one.” That’s almost surely not the case (there are a few takes, after all: take 3 is below), but to me it has an end-of-session vibe, the last song of the night. Closing time.

the voice of warner-reprise, r.i.p. stan cornyn

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“No one is born sophisticated. It’s a place you have to crawl to, crawling out of hayseed country, over miles of unsanded pavement, past Trouble, past corners and forks with no auto club signs to point you, till you get there and you wake up wiser.”

That was on the back of an album jacket, and the album, it must be said, is not a memorable one. It has a couple of hit singles that everybody knows, and couple of Beatles covers, songs by Dylan and Brian Wilson and Jagger & Richards. The playing, by the guys and gal who played on almost everything recorded in Los Angeles in those days, is fine as far as it’s asked to go, and the young lady on the cover is, as was said, a babe. Mod horizontal stripes top and bottom, red leather mini-skirt and matching boots (the album is called Boots, so your eye is drawn to them, after taking in the way the girl is staring straight into the camera). There is nothing that exceptional going on, except you flip the cover over, and you read.

“A young fragile living thing on its own in a wondrous-wicked-woundup-wasted-wild-worried-wisedup-warmbodied world. On her own. Earning her daily crepes and Cokes by singing the facts of love. Her voice tells as much as her songs. No faked-up grandure, her voice is like it is: a little tired, little put down, a lot loving.”

It doesn’t matter so much that the vocalist doesn’t, couldn’t, live up to that stream of writing. She would have to be a modern Mildred Bailey, a pop Patsy Cline, Tuesday Weld with vocal equipment to match her vixenish allure, to be truly worthy of those words, but never mind: she’s Nancy Sinatra, the daughter of the boss of the label, and the single is unmistakably a fine thing, and if she requires some eloquent prose to give her mystery that a version of “Flowers On The Wall” can’t contain, what of it? The album jacket is a marketing work-of-art, and no one, no one, filled the back of a 12″ X 12″ cardboard space with a more deft touch than Stan Cornyn, who passed away this week.

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He made label hype seductive and witty, insightful and novelistic (some of his notes for the elder Sinatra are like miniature short stories). As head of Creative Services for Warner Brothers-Reprise Records, he came up with ad campaigns that made the efforts of other record companies seem creaky, tired, obvious. Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, The Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Van Dyke Parks, The Fugs were advertised with copy that acknowledged their commercial limitations (and whatever we now know of Young, Mitchell, The Dead, they were not initially an easy sell). And you could find, on the backs of albums you might not otherwise consider buying by, say, Dean Martin, The Anita Kerr Singers, Trini Lopez, Harpers Bizarre, prose that on its own was worth lingering over in the easy listening racks of your local department store record department. Cornyn also invented the WB-Reprise double-LP Loss Leader sampler, and in the very first one, Songbook, gave out the phone number to reach him and his colleagues in Creative Services: 213-843-5115.

His notes for the masterpiece Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim are as great as they need to be to reflect the genius within. They begin thusly:

“It had begun like the World Soft Championships. The songs, mostly by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Tender melodies. Tender like a two-day, lobster-red Rio sunburn, so tender they’d scream agony if handled rough. Slap one of his fragile songs on the back with a couple of trumpets? Like washing crystals in a cement mixer.”

Here’s something I’ve said to people who have asked me how I got into the music-business racket: I believed I had one skill that could earn me my keep and pay my rent and buy me Buitoni macaroni and Chips Ahoy cookies; I could write some. And all I did the livelong day was listen to music. How could this possibly add up to anything? Stan Cornyn helped me figure it out. Not personally: I didn’t call his number at work. But I read the liner notes and the ads and the artist blurbs in those first few Loss Leaders, and thought, this might be the way. There was someone at a record company who did this stuff??? I could write the essays or the ads, maybe? And lo and behold, I did. And copied Cornyn as closely as I could without getting sued for tone-plagiarism. I wrote a good number of album notes, and moved from publicity writing to advertising writing at Arista Records, and so on.

What Cornyn taught me was that selling through words could have literary merit, that trying to convey, in an advocating sense, what the music within the sleeve, or the music being pitched, had to say, was something almost noble. His work was conversational, with exceptional pitch for detail, and behind it was the idea that one way to cut through the noise of hype was to do it quietly, with humor. Another way was to invite people to enter a Pigpen look-alike contest, or win a date with a Fug, or please, please, check out these Van Dyke Parks and Randy Newman albums because we have all these unsold copies lying around. Warner-Reprise was by far the coolest record label of the late ’60s and early ’70s. By far. And not only because the A&R was brilliant, although it surely was, but because Stan Cornyn’s touch, so distinctive, was the key to the label’s public sensibility: it was where Jimi Hendrix and Tiny Tim, Petula Clark and Frank Zappa, The Vogues and Fleetwood Mac, Sinatras and Everlys, were all embraced, and when we sent in our $2 for those Songbook and Record Show samplers, we never knew what we might discover. They were Cornyn’s doing, along with all those classic ads and notes that, really, somebody needs to combine in one volume. Often, they were the best thing about the album.

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