american hustlers

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I have a feeling that Rod McKuen and Kim Fowley are sharing a laugh in the Afterworld, chuckling over the improbable fact that they were able to construct long careers out of the flimsiest of raw material. Neither possessed with what might be called, in the traditional sense, talent, except that there is something to be said for being an American Hustler, promiscuously flitting from scene to scene. whatever is clicking at that precise moment, and stumbling into a world that embraces and rewards you.

Novelty records, girl group records. “Oliver Twist Meets The Duke of Oil,” “Popsicles and Icicles” (if you didn’t know which one was McKuen’s and which was Fowley’s, the titles would never tip you off). McKuen made an album called Beatsville, and Fowley made one called Love Is Alive and Well, but again, you could swap those out: beatniks, flower children, what’s the difference if all you’re doing is capitalizing on What’s Now? And each one left behind, almost accidentally, some stuff that lasts. They gave us Joan Jett, English translations of Jacques Brel songs for Scott Walker and Dusty Springfield to sing, 45s by The Hollywood Argyles, a not-bad Sinatra album. McKuen has a longer list of cultural misdemeanors — “Jean,” “Seasons In The Sun,” acting roles in Summer Holiday and Wild Heritage, an album featuring the vocal stylings of his pal Rock Hudson — but he also concocted some Bachelor Pad mainstays like the hilarious In Search of Eros (subtitle: “loneliness and love in the age of eroticism”).

For characters like McKuen and Fowley, neither one a “singer” (in McKuen’s case, his default setting sounds like Clint Eastwood’s grainy but soothing patter in the dj booth in Play Misty For Me, and Fowley made Sky Saxon seem like Roy Orbison by comparison), it was all about persona, staying in the game. You’d have to call what McKuen scribbled poetry, I suppose, but only because there’s no other way to categorize the way he organized words on a page. What else could it be? And I guess he took his job seriously, but maybe it was all a joke. Listen To The Warm? How could you write down that phrase, name a whole book Listen To The Warm, and not think, “I’ll have to come up with something better before we go to press, but that’s ok for now?” Maybe it was a con, and that’d be fine, because it didn’t matter. In his first movie, Rock Pretty Baby, he was in a quasi-rockabilly band, he cut standards for Decca, made folk records when folk was in, did the Beat Poet gig, cut the singles “Oliver Twist” and “Celebrity Twist” during that pop moment. Like a lot of ambitious kids (Teddy Randazzo, Paul Simon) he floundered around the fringes of pop before landing on something that worked. He became Kahlil Gibran, simpler, even. He read his organized words on television, sold many books, scored movies, wrote songs for Broadway, became a kind of homespun, road-weary American version of Brel, Aznavour, Becaud, a man alone.

“Alley-Oop,” “Nut Rocker,” “Oliver Twist,” “Seasons In The Sun,” “The Beat Generation,” “The Mummy,” “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow,” “A Boy Named Charlie Brown,” “Like, Long Hair,” “If You Go Away.” That is one loopy list of songs that Fowley and McKuen have on their resumes in one way or another. With Fowley, it’s often hard to pinpoint what his role was — it’s part of his Genius Mystique — but even if he was mostly an industry facilitator, anyone who can recognize the brilliance of “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” has perpetual bragging rights as far as I’m concerned, and “Alley-Oop” is a novelty record that transcends novelty: there were three versions of the Dallas Frazier song on the Billboard chart in 1960, the one that Fowley had a hand in went to #1, and somehow the tune lasted long enough to enter the repertoires of The Lovin’ Spoonful, Dave Van Ronk and The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band.

Only one McKuen album, a 1969 live one, crept to the bottom of the top 100, and Fowley peaked at an it-had-to-be-a-favor #198 with Outrageous in the same year (they never crossed paths on the same chart), and after “The Mummy” (billed as Bob McFadden and Dor, with Rod being Dor) and “Oliver Twist,” McKuen never had even a minor chart single again. Fowley, as an artist, was hitless. And yet, they made ripples in our culture and thrived through sheer chutzpah. They were determined to leave a mark. I don’t know how Fowley felt about the way he was depicted by Michael Shannon in The Runaways, but my guess is he got a kick out of being a movie villain. One more achievement in a wacky career. Unlike Fowley, McKuen fled from the public eye a long time ago, and the only places you see his books and records are yard sales and thrift stores. His popularity was, in so many ways, inexplicable (“Come out of your half-dreamed dream/And run, if you will, to the top of the hill”: it’s that “if you will” that makes it pure McKuen), but he, like Fowley, forged an idea about himself and mined it for all it was worth. It’s the American way.

teen idol with a butterfly knife

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When an episode of a TV show was called “an hour of dark and sordid ugliness” and an “onslaught of mayhem and suggestiveness” by The New York Times, was condemned in Congress, and has built up a reputation over decades as a particularly contemptible example of network television, you don’t expect it to be screening at a prestigious museum in midtown Manhattan, and you settle in your plush screening room seat with a sense of “this is gonna be good!” I mean, an early directorial effort by Robert Altman, starring then (1961) teen heartthrob Fabian as a charming hipster psychopath? What fun! Except The Lion Walks Among Us, which aired as a Bus Stop episode on ABC, is mostly clunky, and spends a lot of time on courtroom histrionics. There are some juicy scenes: Fabe puts the make on an older alcoholic babe who picks him up hitchhiking (he calls her “Mother Goose”), picks up a guitar at a local beatish joint and serenades a blonde local (in what you’d have to call the Tuesday Weld role), kills a store owner and his own defense attorney.

I can see why viewers on a December night in 1961 would’ve be put off by the “mayhem” (they could have switched over to CBS and watched another teen idol, Bobby Rydell, making nice with Jack Benny and singing “Toot, Toot, Tootsie,” a start contrast in Philadelphia pop-star career moves). Fabian’s character is walking slime with a leering smile and creepy you-know-you-want-it eyes, and the fact that he can’t act means Altman just keeps cutting to his very limited repertoire of facial expressions: “Who, me?” or “Come on, baby!”

I’m glad I finally got to see A Lion Walks Among Us. It’s always fun to see what had moral tight-asses clutching their pearls, Congressmen grandstanding about violence, TV reviewers moaning about how low the bar has gotten, in olden times. But the show is like a slightly-shorter JD-exploitation film like Altman’s The Delinquents (there was talk, apparently, of shooting some additional scenes and expanding it for foreign screens), dark and nihilistic, sure, with an unexpected ending, but I guess you’d have to have been sitting on your living room sofa in ’61 to find it a sign of a decaying society. Drive-in theaters showed this type of thing all the time, only parents weren’t exposed to it. It was kid stuff, like Fabian’s and Bobby Rydell’s records. Annoying, perhaps, but not dangerous.

Fabian was an odd one. He had the requisite towering, elaborate pompadour — hair for pop boys then was a vertical sculpture maintained by Brylcreem and an ever-ready pocket comb (see: Edd “Kookie” Byrnes on 77 Sunset Strip, a show then airing Friday nights on ABC); when The Beatles came along, it was like all those coiffures simply collapsed — and he looked a bit like he could be Elvis’s younger cousin from the big city. He was also, everyone admitted, nearly talentless (see: Taylor Hackford’s The Idolmaker, based on Fabian’s svengali manager Bob Marcucci). This didn’t matter because like say Justin Bieber, he was cute and, like Bieber, he had the pop machine behind him. In that era, if American Bandstand and 16 Magazine were in your corner, and there were talented people behind the scenes, you could do quite OK in the pulling-girls’-heartstrings department. What was different about Fabian, on his records, was that he was aggressively on the make. His labelmate Frankie Avalon was winning over the junior femme circuit with moony ballads like “Bobby Sox To Stockings,” “Just Ask Your Heart” and “I’ll Wait For You.” Fabe would have none of that waiting business. “I’m A Man”! this 16-year-old announced. “You make me feel like a tiger!” “Come On And Get Me”! “You’re mighty cold to a warm warm heart,” so thaw out, honey!

One of the first albums I ever bought, at a drugstore when I was around 9 or 10, was something called The Hit Makers: a half-dozen songs apiece by Fabe and Frankie. Avalon’s six tracks were utter gloop: “I’ll never let you go/Why? Because I love you” (a teen-disc spin on The Mickey Mouse Club theme, it seemed to me). “A boy without a girl is a song without a tune.” Fabe got to the point, and I’ll say to this day that “Turn Me Loose” and “Mighty Cold (To A Warm Warm Heart),” both written by the team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, are expertly crafted Bandstand Pop. “Gonna get a thousand kicks/Gonna kiss a thousand chicks/So turn me loose!” Of course, Fabian’s shaky voice is coming from somewhere deep in a echo chamber, and the arrangement is stiff, but Pomus and Shuman’s bridge is rock & roll time-capsule-worthy:

I got some change in my pocket and I’m rarin’ to go
Taking some chick to a picture show
And when I see her home and we kiss goodnight
Turn me loose, turn me loose, turn me loose, turn me loose

Years later, Dion took over “Turn Me Loose,” which should have been his to begin with, and brought out all the bluesy urgency, and Fleetwood Mac made cool U.K. rockabilly out of “Mighty Cold.” But Fabian is a one-name punchline, shorthand for everything suspect about the music biz c. 1958-1960. The elevation of the musically hopeless, the pandering to the Clearasil Generation (all the stale rock & roll jokes were about pimples and hair and nonsensical lyrics), the Decline in Standards (in the moral and song sense). In the scheme of things, there were a lot worse (Bobby Vinton comes to mind, and I’d much rather listen to Fabian than Anka), but I get it. He was bad, as in good-bad-but-not-evil, but also as in simply bad, as in inept. In A Lion Walks Among Us, he’s unsettling, and not always in the way Altman wants him to be; because his acting is awkward, you just see Fabian trying to act, and I think that’s what got some of the critics rattled. Maybe he’s evil, and we know rock and roll is evil…There was other seedy, violent TV on ABC in the early ’60s, Naked City (’58-’63), The Untouchables (’59-’63), but they didn’t star 19-year-old lotharios who were imploring innocent daughters to turn him loose.

stopped clocks

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I was going to title this “When Good Songs Happen To Bad Artists.” Or “Records I Like By Artists I Don’t.” But the first sounded too judgey even for me, and the second, while on the nose, unnecessarily a pronouncement of pure taste. Sometimes I have to remind people that almost every post I post could begin “In my opinion,” so if I pick on a musician or songwriter who happens to be a personal fave of theirs, I don’t get angry if they tell me I’m full of shit. What I discovered in various playlists was a fairly regular occurrence of “What’s this doing here?,” a track by an artist whom I consistently dismiss. Somehow, these works have snuck in. Not anything by Celine Dion, Michael Bolton or String Cheese Incident, mind you. Some standards are inviolate. The actual sounds made by Ms. Dion’s and Mr. Bolton’s actual voices are (once more, to my ears) intolerable. Still, in conversation I’m likely to make sweeping, unfavorable statements about all the artists listed below and my iTunes library tells me I might be exaggerating.

The Eagles: “New Kid In Town”

Might as well start here. Although if I’m being completely candid, the song makes no sense to me. I just like the whole texture of it, the way it’s arranged. It reminds me of ’60s songs by Del Shannon, Roy Orbison and Gene Pitney, a little mystery, a hint of bajon, with California harmonies. “There’s talk on the street, it sounds so familiar,” it starts, and I’m not sure who the narrator is, but he pulls you in, and the things builds in drama. Like most Eagles records, it goes on too long; by the four minute mark it’s like ok, I get it, but then for the last minute it’s a new thing, a secondary chorus: “Everybody’s talking ’bout the new kid in town (I don’t want to hear it).” Damn, it’s easy to slam the Eagles, their smug sense of entitlement, their multiple musical felonies, the way they stripped The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Byrds for parts and forgot to take the important ones. But this Henley-Frey-Souther song manages to be cryptic and accessible, with hooks all over the joint.

Billy Joel: “Uptown Girl”

Here’s how much I don’t like Billy Joel: back in the election of 2008, he was booked to do a benefit for Obama, co-billed with Bruce Springsteen. I was already funneling spare cash Obama’s way and would’ve gladly kicked in more, and I welcome any opportunity to be in the room with Springsteen. But I couldn’t, because for every Springsteen song, I’d have to sit through a Joel song, and that was too high a price to pay. What if he sang “My Life,” or “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me,” or “We Didn’t Start The Fire” or “You May Be Right” or that song with the wine bottles? Way too risky.

Let me amend the above. I like Billy Joel. He gave terrific speeches at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducting The Drifters and The Righteous Brothers. At a Songwriters Hall of Fame dinner, he spoke eloquently as a songwriter about the brilliance of Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman.” If I were putting together a Rock and Roll curriculum, I’d make him a department chairman. He knows his stuff. But his albums always struck me as being so strenuous, so defensive and overwrought. Until An Innocent Man, which was relaxed and affectionate. The lead single (“Tell Her About It”) was rickety, but “Uptown Girl” was a blast. It turned out that Joel was a superb mimic; he and producer Phil Ramone got the Crewe-Gaudio sound of the Four Seasons nailed down, Joel wrote a pastiche of all the Seasons’ “romance thwarted by income disparity” songs. I have to give it up.

Barbra Streisand: “Some Other Time”

What does it say that the two Streisand recordings I like are sessions from 1962 and 2009, the first backed only by a pianist, the second by a piano-led quartet combo? Everything in between, meaning almost a half-century of singing songs, is music I easily live without. But what about her voice??, one might ask. OK, I think I’d like it more if it weren’t so blatant that she likes it so much, is so eager to show off what it’s capable of. And I’m sure I’d be more appreciative if she didn’t sing so many lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, but that’s a whole other thing. Streisand is something of a miraculous instrument; I get that, but when she sings a great song, there’s nearly always someone else’s version I prefer, someone who isn’t so intent on dazzling me.

The March 1962 session was an audition for RCA Records. She was about to turn 20 years old, and her vocal confidence was already off the charts. I could do without her linguistic over-precision on Rodgers & Hart’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” (Hart didn’t write “I could not sleep/And would not sleep…”), but there’s something touching about this unrecorded teenager singing “Have I Stayed Too Long At The Fair.” Then decade after decade that you either swoon over or you don’t, and in ’09, she went into the studio with Diana Krall and Tommy LiPuma to cut Love Is The Answer. On a bonus disc, there’s a stripped-down version of the more-arranged album, and it ends with a lovely version of “Some Other Time” from On The Town. It only took 46 years from her Columbia debut, but now I have a favorite Barbra Streisand track.

Paul Anka: “Remember Diana”

Paul Anka’s hit-generating career began with this couplet: “I’m so young and you’re so old/This my darling I’ve been told.” You’d expect that having started with doggerel like that, there was much room for improvement. Sadly, it didn’t get better: “Puppy Love,” “She’s A Lady,” “My Way,” “(You’re) Having My Baby.” “I’ll state my case of which I’m certain.” “She always knows her place, she’s got style she’s got grace.”

My case, of which I’m certain, is that Anka’s songs are mostly gigantic clutzburgers. What’s fun is when the songs go past mere dopeyness into the realm of the baroque. Like “You Are My Destiny” (“You are what you are to me”) or “Remember Diana.” The latter is pure venom: “I wrote a song about her/How wrong could I be?” He’s just so annoyed, sputtering and squawking. I have two versions in my library, the original single and the Scopitone video where he wildly over-emotes.

Joan Baez: “Farewell Angelina”

I’ve tried so hard to appreciate Joan Baez, but I don’t get her. She picks good material to sing, and she’s rarely done anything majorly embarrassing (her You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” at The T.N.T. Show with Phil Spector on piano is a bit like watching your aunt twerking on the dance floor). But she aims for earnest prettiness, and she always
turns the ends of her phrases into lilting curlicues that flatten out meaning.

The records I do like are from a period in the ’60s when she was slightly less mannered, and let the songs stand without vocal frills: Phil Ochs’s There But For Fortune” (although I’m more likely to play Francoise Hardy’s), Donovan’s “Catch The Wind” (a duet with her sister Mimi), and Dylan’s “Farewell Angelina,” a song that needs so little embellishment.

Barry Manilow: Read ‘Em and Weep

This here’s a two-fer! The lifetime supply of hot air that is Jim Steinman combined with the lachrymose schmaltz of Manilow on a record where it sounds like no one knows what anyone else is doing. It’s like if Al Jolson did a song by The Doors (I’m thinking “Love Her Madly,” but “Touch Me” would be ok also). I used to wish Manilow’d been born a decade or so earlier, and then he could have been in a cubicle at 1650 Broadway writing tearjerkers for Lesley Gore or Jay & The Americans.

I had a cassette of an unreleased Manilow-Steinman track, and I’d play it for people who visited me at 6 West 57th Street. I’d have killed with the routine at Caroline’s: here comes the part where Barry gets trapped in a washing machine and Jim is adding the fabric softener. Truly, I love “Read ‘Em and Weep,” and not just because Manilow wears sad-clown makeup in the Bob Giraldi-directed video. When Manilow was out of his comfort zone the results could be hilarious. Mockabilly (“Oh Julie”), Latin Pop (“Hey Mambo” with Kid Creole), U.K. New Wave (Duncan Browne’s “The Wild Places”), “Comedy” (“The Last Duet” with Lily Tomlin). “Now the guns are exhausted and the bullets are blanks.” Priceless.

gone girls! girls! girls!

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The Beverly Hillbillies began its nine-season, 274 (!) episode run in September 1962, in between the theatrical releases of Elvis Presley’s Kid Galahad and Girls! Girls! Girls!, and the CBS sitcom and string of Elvis movies fall under the inexplicable-success category of popular culture: what was the draw, exactly? By any rational yardstick, the entertainment value was minimal, wheezy cornpone, indifferent songs, the thinnest and tinniest of comedic premises. Elvis woke up from his slumber for a few moments, sparked by the flaming-red erotic challenge of Ann-Margret in ’64’s Viva Las Vegas, but otherwise his series of ’60s films deserves its reputation for overall listlessness. ’63’s Kissin’ Cousins almost seemed like a response to the hayseed bonanza of The Beverly Hillbillies, and by the ’65-’66 troika of Tickle Me, Harum Scarum and Frankie and Johnny, there was nothing on the screen that had a pulse.

Unless you were an adolescent boy. Then there were Elvis’s Girls. Shelley Fabares, Yvonne Craig, Pamela Austin, Ursula Andress, Julie Parrish, Mary Ann Mobley, Donna Douglas. Mobley was a former Miss America from Brandon, Mississippi, who made her film debut in the MGM musical Get Yourself A College Girl, a skimpy but titillating concoction that featured The Dave Clark Five, Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto, The Standells and The Animals. She plays an aspiring songwriter who writes the scandalous title song (“s-e-x spells sex,” she helpfully explains). After that, she was one of Elvis’s romantic interests in Girl Happy and Harum Scarum.

Douglas was Elly May Clampett in The Beverly Hillbillies, valiantly trying to play against her Playmate sex appeal — she could’ve been an Al Capp drawing — by ‘rasslin’, cavorting with her critters and being stubbornly unladylike. She was a backwoods bombshell, born in Pride, Louisiana, and naturally she ended up in Elvis’s arms, in the appalling Frankie and Johnny. When people talk about the tepid junk Elvis was obliged to record in the mid-’60s, “Petunia, The Gardener’s Daughter” is exactly what they mean.

This was recorded in May 1965, a month before Dylan cut “Like A Rolling Stone.” Consider being Elvis Presley in 1965, trapped in the nightmare of Frankie and Johnny recording sessions while the world of pop music, the world he’d towered over, was quaking with excitement and innovation. But that’s another story.

Mary Ann Mobley and Donna Douglas passed away recently, and you’d probably say that the ripples they’d made had long ago gone placid. Mobley’s twinkle was put to use on panel shows and game shows (she never got the shots that Fabares and Craig got on primetime TV), and although The Beverly Hillbillies stuck around for a long time, and continued to get a big audience, by the time it switched to color from black & white in its 4th season (’65-’66), it was as dried up as a drained see-mint pond. Even though Mobley shared the big screen with The Animals and The DC5, and sang about s-e-x, she was from a different era. She might have been one of Dobie Gillis’s many loves, one of his dreamy, creamy girls with improbable names like Lottie Lee McQuiddy (in the early ’70s, Keith Partridge was smitten with her, but she was the older woman by then).

They were girls Elvis serenaded (and in the case of Ms. Mobley in the “Wolf Call” scene from Girl Happy, groped on stage), girls from small Southern towns who entered beauty pageants, went to Hollywood and left Brandon and Pride behind. They flickered through the imaginations of impressionable boys. Mobley even cut some pop records with Louisiana boy Jimmy Clanton, and other one-off 45’s, and Douglas joined the rest of the Hillbillies cast on a novelty album that for some reason is still available in this digital age. I’m sure there are plenty of other guys of a certain generation who think of them with not-that-innocent nostalgia, and who felt suddenly very ancient when they heard that these long-ago crushes were gone. Elvis’s Girls were our girls also.

children of woodstock nation and ray charles

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So much of Woodstock weekend is a blur. We arrived very late Friday night/Saturday morning, missed all the first day’s music, dropped our sleeping bags on a far-off hilly part of the field and crashed. After that, what? Where did we eat, go to the bathroom? You’ve seen the drugs and nudity in the movie, so you know that part. The music, well, Creedence sounded like a cranked-up jukebox, The Dead meandered through a wobbly set, Sly and The Who woke up the dazed and doped, the Airplane were on stage at sunrise, but the a lot of memories are as much from the film as from being on Yasgur’s Farm. Not Joe Cocker. That’s a vivid thing, the only set I was fixed upon start to finish.

We’d been able to move forward into a more advantageous position on Sunday morning, and we were prepared for Cocker and The Grease Band. In May, we caught them at the Fillmore East when they played on a bill in between The Jeff Beck Group and NRBQ, so we knew what was up, but after the show at Woodstock, no one would ever see them second on any theater bill again. To most of the people grazing in the grass, this was something unanticipated; With A Little Help From My Friends had come out only four months earlier, and hadn’t yet seeped into the rock mainstream. Cocker wasn’t anything like a marquee name, and that’s why he was given that early-Sunday slot, before all the real heavyweights.

Cocker was the latest, and one of the best, of the soulful cats who were streaming across the ocean, the children of Ray Charles. You don’t hear all that often about how profound the Ray Charles influence was — the Chess blues and rock artists, and musicians like Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker are the most common reference points — but side one of Animal Tracks (U.K. version) finds Eric Burdon doing “Mess Around,” “I Believe To My Soul” and “Hallelujah I Love Her So” just on side one, and young Stevie Winwood channeled Charles all over the first two Spencer Davis Group albums, especially on “Georgia On My Mind.” On Truth, The Jeff Beck Group’s debut, Rod Stewart brought some Ray into his “Old Man River.” Cocker took it a few steps further: instead of flashing backwards, he stayed in the thick of the new-rock moment.

He didn’t cover many older R&B and blues favorites (there’s a Lloyd Price on the second album, “Bye Bye Blackbird” on the first, and he adopted Charles’s “Let’s Go Get Stoned”). Instead, he found a way to take newer material by Lennon & McCartney, Dylan, Dave Mason, Leonard Cohen, John Sebastian, Leon Russell, and do what Ray Charles might have done, take the songs, strip and rebuild them, find the emotional cores. He knew that Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman” and “I Shall Be Released” were soul songs at their center (I can imagine Otis Redding doing both of them), which was savvy enough, but finding so much rawness in “With A Little Help from My Friends” was a whole other transformative situation.

So many losses recently, and you can go online and find all sorts of connections: Bobby Keys and Ian McLagan playing together in The New Barbarians, Keys and Cocker on the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, doing “Delta Lady.” And there’s all this prime footage McLagan in the Faces, another band we’d never miss at Fillmore East, because there was absolutely no doubt that it would be the most fun at a rock show you could possibly have. Right before Cocker and The Grease Band came back to headline at the Fillmore East (billed above Fleetwood Mac) in November ’69, Johnny Winter was topping the bill for the first time, and he’s another Ray Charles acolyte (“Drown In My Own Tears” is on his ’69 debut) who passed away this year.

We romanticize our musical pasts, I know. It all seems like such a non-stop adventure to those of us of a certain age, but when you get a few minutes, go over to this page: http://www.chickenonaunicycle.com/Fill%20East%20Shows.htm. See what we could hop on a subway to catch, week after week. Led Zeppelin with Woody Herman, Richie Havens and Nina Simone, Ike & Tina Turner and Fats Domino, Neil Young & Crazy Horse and Miles Davis, Ray Charles and Dizzy Gillespie, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Van Morrison. I didn’t see every one of those shows, and now I wish I had, because so many of those artists are gone. But I did see Bobby Keys, Johnny Winter, Ian McLagan, Joe Cocker, Jack Bruce (Cream at Hunter College and the pre-Fillmore Village Theater).

I lost track of Jack Bruce since the last Cream reunion, hadn’t seen Winter play in decades, and didn’t keep up with Cocker. (Find a great drummer, and the Cocker-Winter-Bruce Band would’ve been something to see.) But when someone leaves, it’s an impulse to stop in for a post-mortem visit. The old music is still amazing, of course, fond recollections or not. Can anyone resist the rock and roll hoopla that was Mad Dogs and Englishmen, a combination soul-revue and dawn-of-a-decade bacchanalia? Cocker kept at it for long after that, and among the pieces I found on YouTube is his version, from about two decades ago, of Bruce Springsteen’s “Human Touch.”

So you’ve been broken and you’ve been hurt
Show me somebody who ain’t
Yeah, I know I ain’t nobody’s bargain
But, hell, a little touch-up
And a little paint

The other day, I picked up two used Ian McLagan LP’s at a record store. And I should check out the newest Jack Bruce album, explore what Johnny Winter was up to since he produced those terrific Muddy Waters albums, see what else Cocker tackled after I stopped paying attention (there’s a Leonard Cohen “I’m Your Man” I need to click on). There’s no reason to be stuck in the Woodstock mud, is there? There’s always catching up to do.

the girls of rhythm nation

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Here’s a proposition that’s bound to get a bunch of people saddling up their high horses: Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey should be considered for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Elusive Chanteuse is eligible next go-round, the other two have clocked in the requisite number of years. Unless you’ve determined that the R&B-Pop of the ’80s and ’90s has less of a connection to the slippery definition of Rock and Roll the nominating committee uses as an elastic yardstick than Motown and Philadelphia-International, unless Jam & Lewis and L.A. & Babyface and Narada Michael Walden were up to something dramatically different than Holland-Dozier-Holland and Gamble & Huff (that is, streamlining contemporary R&B musical vocabulary to reach the largest possible number of young people who listened to the radio and bought records), unless the schmaltzy clog created by Whitney’s and Mariah’s influence on a generation of American Idol contestants is an insurmountable barrier, these three women are worthy contenders.

All right, getting this out of the way: I worked at Arista during the dizzying Whitney Years (1985-1993) and at Columbia during a long stretch of Mariah Time (1993-1999). I was smack in the center of the initial Whitney campaign (writing her bios and ad copy, producing radio spots, then looking for songs in an A&R capacity) and knew her a little early on; I also casually crossed paths with Mariah a few times. But you have to trust me, there are successful artists on both labels from my tenures that I never would endorse for any serious creative career honor. I’ll send names by request. And I know, in the cases of Whitney and Mariah, what the anti-inclusion arguments are. They basically can be summed up as “One Moment In Time” and “Open Arms”: both singers were steered towards an awful lot of anthemic muck, and as a result, they have Celine Dion cooties. There’s also the perception that they’re obedient and musically conservative, and the Rock and Roll Place is rebellious and provocative. (You’d think mental breakdowns, cringe-worthy reality TV and prime-time tit-flashing would play in their favor somehow.) I get it. They are — at least so far for Janet and Whitney, we’ll see if Mariah can chip away the resistance — on the wrong side of the pop divide.

A good friend of mine thinks much of that is nutty talk. The Hall, one could argue, recognizes popular pop all the time. Look at all the Motown acts. If headache-inducing grandiosity were an obstacle, Neil Diamond would still be on the outside looking in. Which reminds me, as much as I bow to Little Anthony & The Imperials — they were on the bill of the first R&R show I ever saw — their records with Teddy Randazzo (brilliant though they are) lean pretty right of center, roadwise. And they’re in the Hall. So is Madonna. (How was she even on the ballot before Cher, and I’m not saying Cher should get in? Or before Jackie De Shannon? It’s not only — or even mostly — supposed to be about selling the most records, but about innovation, influence, all that jazz.) Once you say ok to Madonna, it looks churlish to turn away pop artists who can, you know, sing.

But, you sputter, they aren’t Rock and Roll Artists. 1. They executed the visions of others, executives, producers, songwriters. To which I say, with much love, The Ronettes and Darlene, Martha & The Vandellas and Brenda Lee, Linda Ronstadt and Dusty Springfield. In that half-dozen, a half-dozen of the best pop voices in the history of people singing pop songs, and all of them dependent on producers, arrangers and writers. (And I’m sure their advocates would like me to mention that Mariah and Janet are songwriters. So mentioned.) 2. What about all those ballads? What about what we might call the Michael “Greatest Love” Masser factor, or Mariah’s Memorex version of Badfinger’s “Without You,” or Stephen Schwartz’s “When You Believe” from The Prince of Egypt? I feel you. Honest.

I’d say that ignoring Janet Jackson is kind of sexist. Strike “kind of.” Look at her run for a decade and a half, from “What Have You Done For Me Lately” through “Someone To Call My Lover”: more than twenty Top 5 pop hits, even more on the R&B side, most of them sharp, confident, edgy. hooky. “When I Think Of You,” “Miss You Much,” “Black Cat,” “That’s The Way Love Goes,” a batch of other #1’s, and anyone who was paying attention knows that Control, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 and janet. were more consistent than 90% of 1960’s Motown albums.

Miss Jackson was what most sane people would call a Rock Star, as much, I’d argue, as this year’s inductee Joan Jett (again, with love). And as much as Prince, and Janet’s brother Michael. With Whitney and Mariah, it’s a closer call, the whole Rock Star thing. In general, Rock Stars don’t belt. But I think you have to dig beneath, find the soulfulness and playfulness in the L.A. and Babyface songs from I’m Your Baby Tonight, on Sam Dees’s “Just The Lonely Talking Again” and Steinberg & Kelly’s exuberant ‘So Emotional” from Whitney, on “Exhale (Shoop Shoop”) from Waiting To Exhale. And for every “Hero” for Mariah, there was a “Dreamlover,” a “Honey.” Or an “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” a joyful Spectorish thing.

These three women sold skillions of albums and had more international pop hit singles than I can count. Not that that should be decisive. But look at the pop world we’re living in, at all those girls who have taken control, the ones who came after the Janet-Whitney-Mariah era and are all over the charts making bright and danceable records like “Blank Space,” “Jump,” “Dark Horse,” “Drunk In Love,” “Fancy”…You might not call all that Rock and Roll. There are people who don’t think The Beastie Boys or Donna Summer are Rock and Roll. That’s an argument you could make, I guess. But you’d be missing a chance to draw a line from The Shirelles and The Supremes to Janet and Whitney and, eventually, to Beyonce and Taylor. And that would be a loss.

the geography of loneliness

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You get to Lonesome Town, where the broken hearts stay (at least that’s what you’ve heard), and let’s say you’re looking for a place to spend the night, or a few weeks. Someone tells you to keep walking until you get to the end of Lonely Street where there’s a hotel that, paradoxically, is always crowded but always seems to have a room. Fine, you say, but the directions are vague. You find a place for lovers who wander. You’re too beat to wander, though, and if you’re in the more rural part of town, you’ll discover an army of people — nearly everyone who’s ever sang a country song, in fact (Patsy, Willie, Tammy, Emmylou, Don and Phil, George, Wanda) — asking “Where’s this place called Lonely Street?”

They’re all trying to find a dimly-lit area of town to weep, and you’d think that’d be easy enough to find in Lonesome Town. The area’s defining characteristic is Loneliness. But it gets confusing, because are you looking for Eddie Cochran’s Dark Lonely Street (all Lonely Streets advertise their lack of proper lighting and their gloomy shadows), or maybe Johnny “Pee Wee” Blaine’s Lonely Street To Hell (ok, maybe not that one: you’re lonely, but eternal damnation is not on your itinerary)?

It’s not that simple, you discover. There’s a Boulevard of Broken Dreams that looks promising; it either is the same as, or intersects, or runs parallel to, a Street of Sorrow, but seems over-populated with gigolos and gigolettes, and that might be more sensory stimulation than you’re in the frame of mind for. Why is this so confusing? All you want to do is walk up to the black-clad desk clerk, check in, and cry there in the gloom. Oh, there’s something!: but no, this isn’t Lonely Street, it’s Lonely Avenue. For God’s sake. This is the most depressing town. Some guy who lives on Lonely Avenue (Ray something, or Van or Jimi), points out the features of this neighborhood: his room has two windows that no sunlight gets through. “It’s always dark and dreary,” he says, and he sleeps with a pillow that feels like stone. Hmmm, maybe. If that hotel doesn’t work out.

There’s a dark end of the street. Maybe this is it. No, the people here are meeting to have illicit sex. They look guilty about it, and a little paranoid, but guilt and paranoia are at least exciting, and they are getting laid. This must be the wrong end of the wrong street. Let’s go back to the brochure:

In the town of broken dreams
The streets are filled with regret
Maybe down in Lonesome Town
I can learn to forget

So Lonesome Town and the Town of Broken Dreams are the same place? One thing about Lonesome Town, it’s affordable: “The only price you pay is a heart full of tears.” That you’ve got. The problem is that you need a place to squander your tearful resources. Maybe you got off at the wrong bus stop? Maybe this isn’t Lonesome Town at all, but Lonesome Old Town, the one that’s less gentrified and doesn’t even have a hotel. Frank lives there. Can you crash at his place? Probably not. He’s kind of a surly cat and man, does he sound depressed. You don’t need to be around him right now. Oh, fuck, you got the whole thing messed up. It’s not Lonesome Town, or Lonesome Old Town (or Lonelyville: thanks for the bad advice, Porter), it’s Lonely Town. Of course it is: Lonely Town — not to be mixed up with Lone Lonely Town, a suburb of Motown, it looks like — Lonely Avenue, Lonely Street, and to get there you take the Long Lonely Highway (a road to Nowhere, Elvis says, but I think he means that metaphorically). You reach the end of Lonely Street, finally, and find a new place to dwell.

it’s a cold cold world

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At 7:30 on a night when the safe bet was to stay indoors, a few dozen people were at Joe’s Pub, scattered around the room as a couple of middle-aged guys ambled onto the stage. One of them sat at a keyboard, the other had an acoustic guitar, and the one with the guitar started to sing. “Pull my little string and I’ll wink at you, I’m your puppet.” For ninety minutes, Dan Penn, who co-wrote that song, and Bobby Emmons, who played on so many hit-making sessions it’d make your head spin, sat there and unspooled song after song that’s stuck around for decades: “Dark End of The Street,” “Cry Like A Baby,” “Do Right Woman-Do Right Man,” “You Left The Water Running.” And Penn told stories about Otis and Aretha, and coming up with a hit single under the gun for Alex Chilton and The Box Tops when they had a session booked but didn’t have the song to cut.

I wanted to text all my friends in the city to get their asses down to Lafayette Street, especially all my songwriting friends, because what we had going on here was a seminar in crafting small, emotional and above all soulful songs, often on the fly. Penn and Spooner Oldham needed a bridge for “Do Right Woman,” and were stuck. Penn snatched the first line from a James Brown song, Jerry Wexler came up with the following line, and then Aretha wrapped it up. Just like that. Dan and Spooner originally thought “I Met Her In Church” would be perfect for Aretha — and it would’ve been — but things went awry with the Queen of Soul, so they played it for Chilton, who said he’d take a crack at it.

I was looking at the list of Grammy nominations when they were announced last week, and noticed that one of the nominees for Best R&B Song had ten songwriters credited as writing it. OK, why does it take that many people to write “New Flame”? I don’t want to be Cranky Old Guy, and it’s not a bad song; basically, it’s a standard come-on:”Who said you can’t find love in the club?/’Cause I wanna tell them they’re wrong/ Come on, just, baby, try a new thing /And let’s spark a new flame.” And Rick Ross’ rap is the only one I’m aware of that references Yogi Berra, so respect. But ten people? What does everyone do? One of the writers is named Maurice “Verse” Simmonds. We know his job. It might be helpful — as one of my Facebook friends suggested — for everyone whose name is on the song to be identified like that (like Chris “Title” Brown or Mark “Second Pre-Chorus” Pitts). But since they aren’t, we can only guess at how the creative labor was divided. The frontrunner in this category, Beyonce’s “Drunk In Love,” has a relatively modest line-up of eight writers. When did it become a requirement for pop and R&B songwriting to be a team sport? And don’t get me started on the whole “topline” business, which strikes me as essentially writing songs backwards.

Penn and his various collaborators did it the old way (although, as the “Do Right Woman” story points out, ideas came from all around the room), and came up with so many soul standards that they couldn’t come close to fitting in the Joe’s Pub set. I’d have loved to have heard “Everything I Am,” a favorite Box Tops track, and “A Woman Left Lonely,” done definitively by Charlie Rich, and “Out of Left Field,” pretty much owned by Percy Sledge. But there was only so much time, and Penn turned the mic over to Bobby Emmons to sing one of the bunch of songs he co-wrote for Waylon Jennings (“Luckenbach, Texas”). This show could have gone on and on, and Penn seemed up for hanging out and playing more, if the club didn’t have to clear out for a second set. There was a book of songs in front of him that he kept flipping through, and I wondered which ones he skipped over (“I’ll Take Care Of You”? “Zero Willpower”?).

It didn’t matter. Anytime you have the chance to sit in the room with one of the guys who wrote “Dark End of The Street,” a song so naked and cornered, so gripped with passion and anxiety, that’s worth walking blocks in the freezing rain to see. And he did “Nobody’s Fool,” a song he cut as the title track for his own, well worth downloading, 1973 Bell album (Penn’s said he wrote it with Elvis in mind, and that would’ve been something…), and the devastating “It Tears Me Up.” You couldn’t ask for a simpler song than that; all it is is a guy in a state of despair: “I see you walk with him/I see you talk with him/It tears me up…and I can’t stop crying.” It only gets worse from there. He sees them kissing — his ex and his best friend — and she gives him a look that might be remorse, but what good is that? “It’s a cold cold world I’m living in,” he says, and he’s “still hungry for something I can’t have.” It tears him up so bad. Penn and Oldham — just the two of them, Chris Brown and your squad — gave this song to Percy Sledge, who wrung every drop of anguish from it on his 1966 Top 10 R&B single. Shed a tear for the unrequited.

high hopes and low expectations

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What Rolling Stone does in declaring that U2 and Bruce Springsteen made the two best albums of 2014 is not only reveal a staggering level of out-of-touchness, but devalue the work of U2 and Bruce Springsteen. If Songs of Innocence and High Hopes, albums that rank nowhere near the best, or even second-best that these artists have made over the decades, are elevated to classic stature, what does that say about The Joshua Tree and Tunnel of Love? That they’re also just ok enough (they aren’t)? Rolling Stone desperately wants to stay on Bono’s and Bruce’s good side, but how does that guarantee everything they release a free pass? Geez, not only is the end-of-year best-album list in Mojo more in tune, but so is Time Magazine’s. In my circle of friends and acquaintances there are huge Springsteen fans, people who think nothing of hopping on a plane to see a show in Nashville, but when it comes to High Hopes and Working On A Dream (another Rolling Stone #2 album of the year), they get awfully quiet. Lapses in any long career are forgivable — Bob Dylan had an extensive stretch of tossed-off nonsense before regaining his footing — but you can’t simply pretend, in any world that makes sense, that the newest albums by U2 and Springsteen are the best of this or any year.

We want the artists we admire to keep making distinguished work, and we cut them a lot of slack, but we don’t have to. Take Dylan: he just wrapped up a five-night stand at the Beacon Theater this week, the same set every night. Only two songs from the 1960s, two from the ’70s (both from Blood On The Tracks), the rest all from the past 15 or so years (six from Tempest, his most recent new studio album). It was compelling, daring, and the audience stayed with him: it was a Show, it had passion and structure, and one reason it worked is that Tempest, and Modern Times, and Love and Theft aren’t shamed by the albums Dylan made when he was in his 20s and 30s. The concert included zero songs from Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde On Blonde. Only one song preceded Bringing It All Back Home. I’ve seen Dylan a lot of times since 1974; some shows have been stellar, once I walked out midway through. Ups and downs. This one clicked into place with the opening song, “Things Have Changed,” and didn’t flag at all. I could put it on a list of Best Concerts of 2014 and not be embarrassed, or chalk it up to residual affection or nostalgia.

Springsteen’s show that I caught in April was really good also, with some moments that have stuck with me, but I can’t imagine The E Street Band (or U2) doing what Dylan is doing, pretty much ignoring the classic repertoire and lasering in on material from the last four or five albums. I’d be fine with a show that was heavy on Magic and dipped into Wrecking Ball (more than fine, actually), but imagine if he locked into a set that included nothing from The River, The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle or Born To Run (his equivalents, more or less, to Blonde On Blonde, The Times They Are A-Changin’ and Highway 61 Revisited). Would even the editors of Rolling Stone be happy with a Springsteen concert as High Hopes-intensive as Dylan’s show relies on Tempest? I suppose they’d pretend to be: in the cases of Springsteen and U2 it feels as though what RS is reviewing is intent, so if the spin is that the ragtag nature of High Hopes is a virtue, a sign of creative loosening up, that’s what they go with.

Dylan as always is a special case. McCartney couldn’t do a tour and play no Beatles stuff. There would be riots, or at least refund-demands galore. Dylan can do a show without “Like A Rolling Stone,” “All Along The Watchtower” or “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” and give those slots to songs written in this century. Let Paul Simon try that (no “Sound of Silence,” no “Bridge Over Troubled Water”), or Elton John, or God forbid, The Stones. Do you want to sit through a Rolling Stones show that’s 90% post-1999 material? Have fun. Except for Dylan, who would even attempt such a thing? Bowie, I’d imagine. I’d pay to see a mostly 21st-century Bowie concert.

Songs of Innocence and High Hopes are two albums that, when the histories are written, will be considered secondary, and that’s fine. I’ve been going to a Robert Altman festival at the Museum of Modern Art. He’s one of my favorite directors, and it’s an opportunity to catch up, but man, there are some mediocre films in there. Philip Roth wrote some novels I’m not wild about. That’s the arc of a career. I’m not going to play these U2 and Springsteen albums much, but I’ll keep the songs I like in my iTunes library and I won’t skip them when they come to the surface. Every album doesn’t have to be in the pantheon. What bugs me is that over-praising them has the effect of critically leveling the work out, muddling the narrative. No one really thinks U2 made the Best Album of 2014, do they? It’s not as good as the Lana Del Rey album, or 1989, or Miranda Lambert’s Platinum, or the one by Beck (Mojo’s pick for the year’s best). If you want to acknowledge an old-guy album, there’s Leonard Cohen’s, which would be in my top 10. Really, Jann, it’s ok to admit once in a while that your idols are fallible. No one gets hurt, I promise.

song of inexperience

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I know the late lyricist Sammy Cahn would be feeling very thankful this week. Well into his advanced age, he kept plugging away like an old-time song schlepper, trying to get cuts on new projects, refusing to accept that his era was over. Once in a while, I bumped into him at industry functions — he liked the young women I was friendly with at the publishing companies — and he was always on the hustle in a Jewish-uncle way. He was fun to chat with. And now I see that three current albums have versions of his 1954 song “Teach Me Tonight” (melody by Gene DePaul). Aretha Franklin, Bette Midler and She & Him have all cut the song about someone who romantically has “a lot to learn,” and is open to some tutoring. “Since this is the perfect spot to learn,” the singer concedes, “teach me tonight.” The spot is outdoors, under the starlit blackboard sky.

The song became a pre-Rock ‘n’ Roll hit sixty years ago by The De Castro Sisters, and locked into the pop repertoire. Midler and Zooey Deschanel of She & Him do it in the breezy De Castro way, Aretha in the R&B-jazz (Dinah Washington, Etta James, Nancy Wilson) way. It’s a song about sex, obviously, either the Mathis-era partially-clothed make-out sex that never speaks in details (the ABC/XYZ of it is left intentionally vague) and assumes a prior level of innocence, or role-playing sex: I’ll be the student, you be the teacher, I don’t know what I’m doing but I’ll follow your lead.

In other words, either Doris Day or Julie London. I could swear those polar-opposite women did “Teach Me Tonight,” but if they did. I can’t locate the records. (Doris did “Teacher’s Pet,” a variation on the theme, with winking references to “a little homework.”) So on the one hand we have Brenda Lee, The McGuire Sisters, Patti Page… all aflutter, and on the other we have Miss Ann-Margret, backed by Marty Paich-arranged strings, who sounds as though she’s up for anything, really; she’s in your hands, professor, and whatever she doesn’t already know, she’s eager to pick up.

It’s been sung by a lot of men, also, even soul men (Jimmy Ricks, Billy Stewart) and swingers (Sammy Davis Jr., Buddy Greco) owning up to areas of lack of expertise or, possibly, feigning innocence as a means of seduction (see: Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe on the yacht in Some Like It Hot). Teen idols like Frankie Avalon, Paul Anka, George Maharis and Tommy Sands recorded it, assuring their young female fans that whatever happens, the girls can set the pace. They’re the men who don’t know too much. “Teach Me Tonight” has even been a male-female duet — Marvin Gaye & Kim Weston, Joe Williams & Sarah Vaughan — a tricky proposition, because surely someone needs to know the ropes here, otherwise it’s two people fumbling around or pretending to fumble around.

The most egregious rendering was by Frank Sinatra, knowing that trying to come across as sexually naive was a fool’s errand. He had Cahn write some new verses, owning up to Frank’s lengthy history in the XYZ department and hinting that, even so, there were things he hasn’t gotten around to yet. Backed by Quincy Jones & Co., Sinatra does some bragging (“I’ve also met a chick or two/But I still could learn a trick or two”) and gets specific: “Off the wall, the bed, the floor of it, teach me tonight” he suggests. Off the wall sex with Frank Sinatra in 1984, then pushing 70. Charming.

You earn your jazz/soul-babe credentials by doing “Teach Me Tonight,” as everyone from Peggy Lee to Blossom Dearie to Chaka Khan to Amy Winehouse knew, and it’s by some margin the most successful interpretation on the Aretha album, flashing back to her Dinah Washington influence. Midler’s multi-tracked take on It’s The Girls is a creamy nostalgia trip, and Zooey does her fizzy brandy-and-soda ingenue bit that suits the song’s “ok, let’s do it” mood. In this case, awkward enthusiasm goes a long way. In a season of covers albums, some hilariously misguided, some redundant, some unimaginatively programmed, She & Him have made one that isn’t hemmed in by a concept, that doesn’t try too hard to wow, and it’s the one with a truly modern spin. And Sammy Cahn has another cut on it, 1947’s “Time After Time,” written with Jule Styne. That, he’d get a big kick out of, since he wasn’t too thrilled that the only “Time After Time” he thought younger people were aware of was the Cyndi Lauper song.