who are the beatles?

the_beatles_abbey_road_album_cover_photo_session (3)

Pop history is reductive, and skewed. A friend forwarded along a Spotify list published in Billboard of popular Beatles songs broken down by demographics, and while a lot of the statistics are baffling (is “Mean Mr. Mustard” really the third most-popular Beatles track among streamers aged 55-plus? What’s with 30-34 year olds and “Hello Goodbye” and “Ob-La-Di. Ob-La-Da”? How does “You Never Give Me Your Money” rank as a stand-alone #6 song among the 18-24 group?), what’s evident is that the younger you are, the more you listen to “Here Comes The Sun.” In the 17-and-under demo, that’s the #1 track, and when you reach those from 18-to-24, it comes in second only to “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” (And yet somehow, in the boomerest demo, 55-plus, “I Want To Hold Your Hand,””She Loves You”– #1 in the 30-34 gang – “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “A Hard Day’s Night” don’t even make the top 10. The only 1964 track that makes that list is “Do You Want To Know A Secret.”) I’m no statistician, but I’ve been looking over these seven top ten lists looking for any patterns that make sense. What albums are the tracks on? What cultural anomalies come into play? Why do people under 18 play “Love Me Do” more than any other age group does? Why, after not appearing on any other list, does the cover of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” leap to #1 on the 55+ chart? Who are The Beatles? The answer seems to be: it depends on how old you are.

Like, 45-54 year olds make “Back In The U.S.S.R.” their #1, but no other cuts from The Beatles (aka The White Album) are anywhere in the top ten. “Let It Be” is in the youngest demo’s top ten, then vanishes, apparently, until you hit 45 years old. So from 18 through 44, you’re not in the mood to hear “Let It Be” all that much, and then you are, and then not so much anymore once you turn 55? And what to make of the fact that “I Am The Walrus” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” are nowhere (“Penny Lane” is on every under-30 list), but if you’re under 25, “Come Together” is one of your favorites? There is a big “We Can Work It Out” spike 35 through 54, but that demo doesn’t care as much for the superior flip side, “Day Tripper.” Some number one singles, “All You Need Is Love”,” “Eight Days A Week,” are out of every top ten, but the boomer chart contains “Glass Onion” and “Long, Long, Long.” I haven’t done a mathematical breakdown, but it looks like it’s the 25-to-29’s who gravitate most towards the earlier stuff (“From Me To You,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Love Me Do”), and they’re the only group that loves “Norwegian Wood” (#4).

On most all-time-albums surveys, Sgt. Pepper is way up at or near the top, and even if Rubber Soul and Revolver have weathered better musically, you still see Pepper floating up there in historical terms, but the streaming population doesn’t seem to be that impressed. “With A Little Help From My Friends” is on one list (18-24), the title track and “A Day In The Life” on a couple of others, and that’s it. No Lucy or Rita or Mr. Kite, no “Fixing A Hole” or “She’s Leaving Home” anywhere: it looks like people play the first and last tracks and don’t poke around much further, and you can say it’s because there were no singles on it, but that can’t be the whole explanation, can it? The charts are very singles-heavy, but other odd tracks do sneak in.

Why do people under 25 play “Here Comes The Sun” so much? And why is it so high (#1 or #2) on similar iTunes and Amazon charts? Of all the revelations on the Spotify charts, this stands out. It’s the only non-single on the under-18 list, and beats the Abbey Road single “Come Together” in the 18-24 demo. I don’t think it’s part of a Harrison renaissance, despite “Long, Long, Long” and “Something” turning up (surprise: “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” isn’t on these lists). I was going to chalk it up to the Glee factor: it was sung by Naya Rivera and Demi Lovato in a 2013 Beatles-themed episode, and on the Glee Sings The Beatles soundtrack album. But George’s “Something” is on that album also, and so are “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” and “I Saw Her Standing There,” and none of those are top ten streams for the under-25 set. Was it a big grade-school sing-along (maybe: “Yellow Submarine” is big with that demo)? I have to guess that people in that age group (conscious-to-24) are doing the most streaming, which would mean that the 1-and-2 placing of “Here Comes The Sun” makes it the most streamed Beatles song on Spotify and combined with the other music services means it’s now, at least by this measurement, the Most Popular Beatles Track. Who’d have ever thought that would happen?: a late-period non-single, not written by John and/or Paul. Who are The Beatles? Keep asking, and the answer keeps changing.

it’s those restless hearts that never mend


Disdain is so easy, isn’t it? You look at the bodies of work of certain artists — even more, maybe, than the work, the overall persona that comes through the music — and you find yourself thinking in the terms proposed in Robert Palmer’s famous New York Times review of a Billy Joel concert: “He’s the sort of popular artist who makes elitism seem not just defensible but necessary.” Substitute “they” for “he” in that sentence and you could be talking about Journey, or Styx, or the Eagles. It isn’t so much that there’s an embedded badness in how their music is executed (anyone might say that there are elements of craftsmanship or proficiency), but that they come across as inherently unlikable to a certain type of observer, a type of observer disproportionately represented in the rock critic population to which I belonged (belong? does one turn in those credentials at any point?). So I can say I don’t like the Eagles, or Mr. Joel (as the Times would have it), and let that be that, but as most things are, it’s more complicated. What about when Billy Joel, on tracks on An Innocent Man, proves himself an adept mimic of early-‘60s pop styles, demonstrates a genuine affection for doo wop? What about when he delivers impassioned, eloquent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame speeches on behalf of The Drifters and The Righteous Brothers? Can I really be so dismissive of that Billy Joel because I couldn’t listen one more time to “You May Be Right” or “Big Shot” or “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me”? Or, God save me, “My Life”? A little perspective is nice, sometimes.

Which brings us to the Eagles, and Glenn Frey, and everything you have to blot out to get to the point where you (I) can live and let live and confess that there isn’t a California Playlist you’ve made that doesn’t include “New Kid In Town,” a song and a performance — from an album whose title track (“Hotel California”) ranks up there with “American Pie” as a smug, “cryptic” rock anthem — that threads together country-rock with hints of Del Shannon and Roy Orbison. Unlike “Hotel California,” which strikes me as labored and faux-weighty, “New Kid In Town” feels breezy on the surface, but within the song, and Frey’s vocal, is a sense of foreboding. Look, I’m in league with everyone who’s ever noted how the Eagles drained so much of the soulfulness and integrity of The Flying Burrito Brothers, slicked it up and made it a commercial machine, but if you told me “New Kid In Town” was written by Gram Parsons and not by Frey, Henley & Souther, I wouldn’t be shocked at all. And there are a few other Eagles hits (“I Can’t Tell You Why” by Frey, Henley & Timothy Schmidt, their debut 45 “Take It Easy,” started by Jackson Browne and completed by Frey, even, I have to say, “Lyin’ Eyes”) that make the band undismissible despite “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and “Witchy Woman.”

Frey’s death brought out all the accumulated resentment of his band, a band whose arrogance was on full display in the recent History of the Eagles doc, whose live shows might as well have been performed by marble statues with wigs and guitars, who gave the world “Life In The Fast Lane” and “Already Gone” (blame, at least in part, Joe Walsh and Jack Tempchin for those). That’s all fair enough, but it’s hard to hate, full-on hate, a band who covered (pretty convincingly) songs by Tom Waits, Gene Clark and Steve Young, did time in the country-rock outfits of Rick Nelson, Gram Parsons and Linda Ronstadt (I first saw Frey and Henley back her up in ’71), and inspired the Fred Armisen and Bill Hader homage Gentle and Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee. I understand the impulse to want to punch them, because they seem like guys who would have stolen the Ramones’ lunch money in high school, because if they were Beach Boys, they’d all be Mike Love. Because oh, there are dozens of reasons (“Chug All Night,” for example). But I have to step back and confess, every time “New Kid In Town” comes on, I hit repeat.

the meaninglessness of popularity


The woman at the anchor desk seemed to be struggling with the concept of David Bowie. Or, I should say, with the concept of why she was talking about David Bowie. She was riffling through her notecards trying to find a clue as she interviewed the poor guy who was there to explain why Bowie is important. David Bowie only had two number one singles, she read, never had a number one album, and oh, he collaborated with some famous people like John Lennon and Trent Reznor (at first she said “Trent Resnick” until, I guess, someone muttered into her earpiece). Obviously Bowie Meant Something, otherwise why is a news channel covering his death, but since it couldn’t be quantified by number of hits or Grammy Awards, it was difficult to convey what he meant, at least in the context of the news cycle. And it struck me, as it does often, how valueless these standards of measurement are.

Bowie was more than “popular’ or “famous.” Anyone can be popular and famous for a while and wind up meaning nothing. I’m working on a project now involving the history of a record label and lists are being tossed around of the songs that got the highest on one chart or another, but time has judged a lot of those hits harshly, while songs and artists that got lost commercially are, in retrospect, remembered more fondly, made more of a lasting imprint. The label isn’t Capitol or Warner Brothers, but let’s say it is. Helen Reddy and Christopher Cross were super-popular artists for a while on those labels, and is there anyone who thinks either of them matters? Massive Popularity is often bestowed on the truly worthy, The Beatles and The Stones, Elvis, Michael Jackson, Taylor Swift and Adele, but it has been known to strike whimsically and inexplicably.

David Bowie never had a multi-platinum album in his entire career, while Celine Dion and Michael Bolton had many. That’s just how things break sometimes, and there’s no reason to get in a twist about it: all it means is that for a moment, the planets aligned in some wacky way and a few million people were seduced into spending ten bucks on something that gave them temporary pleasure. It’s always been like that: in the 1950s, Pat Boone and Connie Francis sold skillions of 45s, Carl Perkins and Wanda Jackson sold far, far fewer, but which artists made music that anyone is still listening to? Which are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and which don’t have a prayer? Paul Anka wrote a whole lot of hits, but it’s Bert Berns who’s being inducted into the Hall of Fame this year.

Schlock wins for a while, and can be inspired or touched by greatness (the voice of Karen Carpenter, say), but there isn’t much schlock that has adhesive power. Popular schlock of any era winds up in thrift store bins, and you can imagine the process: “What was I thinking?,” and then the sad stacking of the vinyl on the store counter. It’s like a musical walk of shame: I know, I was an idiot, but I thought in a weak moment that this spoke to me. It was the syrupy saxophone, it was that key modulation, I was vulnerable. That’s not how people adopted Diamond Dogs or Aladdin Sane or Low. I think about Greta Gerwig romping down the street to “Modern Love” in Frances Ha, or Emma Watson in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, ecstatic as “Heroes” plays. That’s not momentary infatuation, something that you outgrow or become embarrassed about, that’s true love. The woman at the anchor desk was trying to desconstruct chart positions, trying to make some sense of what went beyond record sales. For so many people I know, Bowie was nothing like a fling, he was the whole world.

there’s no controlling the unrolling of your fate, my friend


“This Could Be The Start of Something” is on an album that was played a lot in my Bronx apartment, sung by the duo of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, written by talk show host Steve Allen, who boasted of cleffing hundreds of pop tunes, only a few of which seeped into the public consciousness and none as memorably as this one. It has a dose of jet-set New Frontier optimism, but it predates JFK’s incumbency by a good half-dozen years: Allen used it as a theme for his TV gigs, and it entered the pop and jazz repertoire pretty quickly. It’s a musical meet-cute; “You’re walking along the street or you’re at a party,” it kicks off, “or else you’re alone and then you suddenly dig…,” and it’s that “dig” that sells it. Allen was somewhat hip — he had jazz cats on his show, and Lenny Bruce, and cut an LP with Kerouac — and although he was completely out of it when it came to rock & roll, notoriously condescending, he had a grasp on some cool corners of the culture, and “This Could Be The Start of Something” has a modern zip.

Look out, the song says, there’s a surprise just around the corner (Bernstein and Sondheim tapped that same well for “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, and I can’t figure out why I can’t find a medley of those two songs anywhere: surely some nightclub crooner welded them together. How did that idea not hit Louis Prima or Sammy Davis Jr.?). It’s basically a list song, you’re doing this, you’re doing that, and wham!, so it lends itself to riffing on the theme. Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan, in particular, take it on a zingy, be-bopping ride, and Buddy Greco does his I’m-so-with-it variations, and they’re both fun versions, but I’ve been gravitating to the one by Mark Murphy, a jazzy singer who passed away last year and took the song for a casual stroll. Hey, I’m just out here doing my thing, open to all sorts of possibilities, but not sweating it.

How many sets in how many showrooms did this song segue out of the first burst of applause? You almost had to open with it, right? Because anywhere else in the set it sounds like the beginning of another act. The song is in the present tense, not “I was walking along the street and I met her/him,” so it pulls you into the action, and so if you were at the Sahara (Tony Bennett) or the Crescendo (Ella Fitzgerald), or in the Columbia studios recording a “live” album (Aretha’s Yeah!!!), or Basin Street East (the aforementioned Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan), it made sense to use it as a welcoming number. It takes the audience on a tour: you’re at Sardi’s or 21, you’re up in an airplane, you’re ordering wine in a dim cafe, and no matter where you are, out of the clear blue sky, it’s suddenly gal and guy. When Sammy Davis Jr. hosted Hullaballoo c.’65, he did some unfortunate pandering — “You’re out at a discotheque and doing the Freddie,” he starts off, and it’s a long slide from there — and someone from Motown convinced Marvin Gaye it’d be a good idea to incorporate it into his set at the Copa. It was not. It was handled with woeful results by Bobby Rydell, with considerable swagger by Bobby Darin, and on her TV show, Dusty Springfield flubbed through it as a duet with Georgie Fame.

Skip over the more routine pop renditions (Jack Jones, The Four Freshmen, even Steve & Eydie, though that one has a snappy bounce) and go to the jazzier side, Lorez Alexandria (the woefully underrated singer who made terrific albums for King, Argo and Impulse), Oscar Peterson, the trombone duo of J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding, The Johnny Griffith Trio, Basie, Jamal. “This Could Be The Start of Something” is all wide-eyed and open-hearted. If it’s ever been done as a ballad, I haven’t heard it. The song steps out into the fresh air with a you-never-know whistle on its lips. “Ba-ba-ba-ba-BA-ba-da,” a little cheerful punch on the fifth note. It’s a new day, anything might happen. Of the many instrumental versions, I get the biggest kick of the one played with hip dexterity by guitarist Grant Green, along with Larry Young on organ and Elvin Jones on drums (Hank Mobley, also on the Blue Note session, takes a break on this track). It shuffles along and stretches out, a winding road to the unanticipated. Because, you know, sometimes you’re alone and then you suddenly dig.

snuff, carole & bobby


Gerry Goffin & Carole King’s “Take Good Care of My Baby,” produced for Liberty Records by Snuff Garrett and sung by Bobby Vee, hit #1 smack in the middle of the era that official histories of rock and pop music tell us was a creative ditch, a period of time when early rock & roll had lost its mojo and the world was just waiting for The Beatles to come along, but I care not at all for that theory, or that people dismiss this as the Age of The Bobbys. When I heard “Take Good Care of My Baby,” I asked my father to drive me into town from the bungalow colony where we spent my childhood summers, so I could purchase the Liberty 45 at the five-and-ten. Unluckily for me, and for my dad, the first copy I bought had a scratch in it, so we had to make a second trip for more playable vinyl, and then I played that single over and over. It seemed perfect to me and still does, and I’ve been thinking about it in the days since Snuff Garrett passed away, and since CBS aired the Kennedy Center Honors show where Carole King was one of the honorees.

There was a nice tribute to King’s songs therein, and everyone now knows that Miss Aretha Franklin shook the walls of the Kennedy Center so mightily that JFK could have felt it from deep in his grave, but the show didn’t include the songs that Carole wrote for Bobby Vee. They’re songs that don’t get covered much, but as a kid, I bought every one of them: “How Many Tears” (which came right before “Take Good Care of My Baby”), “Walking With My Angel,” “I Can’t Say Goodbye,” “Sharing You.” “Run To Him” (by Goffin with Jack Keller) was like a shot at Orbisonian operatics scaled down to Veeish proportions, an exercise in romantic selflessless and sacrifice, while its Goffin-King flip side was, well, its flip side: the elation of strolling through town with a devoted girl on his arm. You can dismiss the Vee-Garrett records as teen soap-opera, but on the radio they shined like a new silver dime, and they helped form my ideas about how simple and heart-tugging a pop single could be.

And look at the songs that surrounded “Take Good Care of My Baby” on the radio: “My True Story” by The Jive Five, “Hurt” by Timi Yuro, “Crying” by Roy Orbison, dramatic epics all. And Bert Berns’ “A Little Bit of Soap” with The Jarmels, Pomus & Shuman’s “Little Sister” b/w “His Latest Flame” for Elvis, “The Mountain’s High” by Dick & DeeDee, ‘School Is Out” by Gary U.S. Bonds. The Dovells’ “Bristol Stomp” was climbing the charts, and so were Dion’s “Runaround Sue,” The Chantels’ “Look In My Eyes” and Ray Charles’ “Hit The Road Jack,” so you can be dismissive all you like about the pre-Beatles ‘60s, but pop music was brimming over with emotion and exuberance. While Vee was circling the top spot, not far behind was Tony Orlando with Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil’s “Bless You” (and Mann himself with “Who Put The Bomp”). For a kid in the very first phase of a lifelong music-listening fixation, these 45s (and early Phil Spector’s “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” with Curtis Lee and “Every Breath I Take” with Gene Pitney, another Goffin & King triumph) were a pop foundation.

You could, I suppose, use Snuff Garrett as a case study in the compromises of commercial pop, point to his records with Johnny Burnette at Liberty as schlockification, the reigning-in of the untamed rampage of Burnette’s records with his Rock & Roll Trio. Garrett and Burnette’s “Dreamin’,””You’re Sixteen” and “Little Boy Sad,” with their plonking strings and sentimentality, were a long way from “Eager Beaver Baby.” But those singles, and the utterly crazy 1961 non-hit “Clown Shoes,” where Burnette’s fiancé buys him a beautifully-wrapped gift, only to humiliate him with the titular footwear, are laden with pop trickery, and so are his singles with Gene McDaniels, like ‘61’s “A Hundred Pounds of Clay” and “Tower of Strength,” and the following year’s even more berserk “Chip Chip” and Goffin & King’s “Point of No Return.” Garrett somehow managed to wring a top 5 single out of the creaky vocal stylings of Walter Brennan (and the piano playing of Leon Russell) with 1962’s “Old Rivers.”

Garrett went on to produce hits with Gary Lewis & The Playboys (and, with Russell, an oddball album with Gary’s dad, The Jerry Lewis Singers: Yesterday and Other Folk-Rock Hits, which sorry to say does not include a Jerry lead vocal on “It’s Ain’t Me Babe”), Cher and others, but he may have never topped “Take Good Care of My Baby”; the blueprint for his production is there in Carole’s piano demo, all the melodic moves, the way the arrangement builds, the little flourishes and counterpoints. It was all there from the start, and I’ve heard that Goffin & King initially offered it to Dion, but that would’ve been a mistake (he did cut it, and it feels half-hearted); Dion was up to something tougher and less swoony at that point. In Vee and Garrett’s hands, it blossomed. I was only a child, and had been listening to pop radio for a little more than a year, but it’s weird what I remember: when I heard the opening verse, Vee alone setting up the scenario, then jumping into the title hook, it was the first time I thought, “That’s going to be number one.” It made the top spot on WABC in September, then was knocked out by “Runaround Sue.” Good year.

a certain mr. toussaint


How much music can truthfully be described as “rollicking”? Music that’s light and nimble, that jumps and flows and makes you smile? Allen Toussaint did many things brilliantly, conveyed sentiment (“All These Things”) and sadness (“It’s Raining”), but I can’t think of anyone’s music that is so flat-out happy, and it was all in the melodic touch: think of his early instrumentals like “Java” and “Whipped Cream,” how insidiously catchy they are, or the novelty songs he wrote for Ernie K-Doe and Lee Dorsey. There aren’t too many people who could get away with something as unadorned as “Happiness,” or “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues),” but there was something unaffected about his songs and nimble about his piano playing. It may seem flip to compare the composer of “Working In A Coal Mine” and “Mother-in-Law” to Duke Ellington, but I saw them both live, and here was something so casually confident about both of them, the way they sat down to play as though it were the most natural thing in the world, like all they needed to do was graze the keys lightly and these tunes would spring to life.

As was famously said about Ellington, Toussaint was beyond category; his roots were in New Orleans R&B and jazz, he was in that line with Professor Longhair and James Booker, but he took that premise, as a writer and producer, into soul, funk, pop, and it’s crazy how many of his early tunes became essential pieces of the pop repertoire despite never being “hits.” Benny Spellman’s 1962 single of “Lipstick Traces (On A Cigarette)” got only as high as #80, and The O’Jays’ version three years later barely snuck into the top 50, but somehow the song’s been covered and covered in the decades since (Delbert McClinton, The Amazing Rhythm Aces, Ringo Starr, Alex Chilton). The song is fundamentally a sad one, a memory song about a faded relationship (it draws on the opening line of the standard “These Foolish Things”: “A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces”), but it has that slinky New Orleans bounce, something that lightly swings.

Spellman’s “Fortune Teller,” “Lipstick Traces”’s Minit B-side, never made the chart at all, and Ernie K-Doe’s “A Certain Girl,” the flip side of “I Cried My Last Tear” on the same label, was a low-charting single, and yet in the first years of the British Invasion, those Toussaint songs kept resurfacing. Where did those groups find them? I never heard “A Certain Girl” until it turned up on the U.S. debut albums by The Yardbirds (For Your Love) and Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders (The Game of Love). “A Certain Girl” is certainly a goofy thing: K-Doe is sweet on a chick, and can’t stop talking about how smitten he is, but he’s stuck in the friend zone and is determined not to tell this friends her name until he’s closed the deal. Again, we have a pretty sad situation here, but the song itself is in denial; this unrequited crush sounds like fun, sort of. It was one of those obscure U.S. R&B songs that the U.K. groups just snatched away: there are takes on it by The Paramounts (who morphed into Procol Harum) and The First Gear, but it’s The Yardbirds version, with Eric Clapton still on board, that nailed it down, at least until it was adopted by Warren Zevon a decade and a half later.

“Fortune Teller”’s U.K. afterlife was even more remarkable: did everyone who bought the “Lipstick Traces” 45 (London 9570) in England turn the single over and decide to record it? The song is like a Toussaint variation on Leiber & Stoller’s “Love Potion No. 9”: the singer (Spellman originally) is in romantic distress and seeks non-psychiatric counsel, in this case in the form of a psychic who tells him to chill out, that the next girl who arrives will be The One. He has no luck and, wanting an explanation, he goes back the next day to the fortune teller, their eyes meet, and happy ending: marriage, and free fortunes. It’s a cute song, and all those British groups found it simple enough to toss into their repertoires: The Merseybeats, Cliff Bennett and The Rebel Rousers, Tony Jackson & The Vibrations, The Hollies, Herman’s Hermits. It’s on The Rolling Stones’ Got Live If You Want It U.S. LP (overdubbed to sound like a concert version) and on The Who’s deluxe Live at Leeds (no overdubs required). Jump-cut to 2007, when it showed up, slowed-down and sinuous, on Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s Raising Sand, and then jump further ahead to Elvis Costello, doing it live with Mr. Toussaint.

When Toussaint passed away not long ago, so many suggested playlists popped up online, testimony to his astonishing influence, versions of “What Do You Want The Girl To Do,” “Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky,” “Get Out Of My Life Woman,” “Freedom For The Stallion,” “Southern Nights,” “Holy Cow.” Some of those songs got recreated at last night’s Toussaint tribute at City Winery orchestrated by Jon Batiste and some didn’t: the show was too brief to get it all in, but any gig that starts with a rousing take on “Whipped Cream” and ends with “Yes We Can Can” is fine with me. One song I really thought should’ve been included was “A Certain Girl,” because when you have a Toussaint crowd and you don’t ask it to sing “What’s her name??” and respond with “I can’t tell ya!!,” that’s what you call a missed opportunity.

the sunny side


The song is 85 years old, written in the the early days of the depression, and still, when it’s the audience’s turn to sing the chorus during a performance by Jon Batiste and Stay Human at a taping of Stephen Colbert’s show, almost everyone knows the words. “Just direct your feet to the sunny side of the street.” The song is a beam of light, pure American optimism: all you have to do is cross over from the dark side into the light, and your outlook will change. “I used to walk in the shade,” the Dorothy Fields lyric goes (to the jaunty melody of Jimmy McHugh), “with my blues on parade,” but nothing is as bleak as it might seem. Look, it’s the sun! Let’s walk over there! There is something so corny about that, so simple, that it’s like a reflection of the Norman Rockwell side of our collective character. Batiste and his group take it as a confident, playful strut, handed down from generations of jazz musician like Louis Armstrong. So many of the New Orleans-tinged versions take their cue from Armstrong’s many performances of it, and even though the song began in a Broadway musical, it feels like it’s part of the New Orleans tradition, like an upbeat Crescent City anthem: Sidney Bechet, James Booker, Louis Prima, Harry Connick Jr., Terence Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis, Trombone Shorty. New Orleaneans all, adopted it, and one of the pioneers of NO R&B, Dave Bartholomew, cut a swinging local Doo Wop version with The Bees.

But it belongs to everyone, to Big Bands (Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Basie and Ellington), to Willie Nelson and Stevie Wonder, to Django and Tatum. How many songs have been recorded by so many A-list vocalists? How many songs have been interpreted by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra (“grab your coat and snatch your hat,” he advises), Armstrong, Nat “King” Cole, Tony Bennett, Dinah Washington, Peggy Lee? Then throw in Dean Martin, Brenda Lee, Johnny Mathis, Doris Day, Joe Williams. That’s an incredible line-up right there, and it’s very very far from complete (apparently there is a Zooey Deschanel version that I need to find). You can see why it struck a resonant note during the 1930s, with its “if I never had a cent I’d be rich as Rockefeller” breeziness in the face of economic setback, and why it circled around again during the dark-cloud period around WWII when it was done by Dorsey and The Sentimentalists, Billie Holiday at Commodore, Goodman with Peggy Lee on vocals, Jo Stafford with the Pied Pipers. This was a song that suggested that worries can be left behind on the doorstep, that happiness was a few steps away.

The verse to the song got lost fairly rapidly. Hardly anyone sings it: the common approach is to leap into the coat-and-hat instructions without any set-up, but the verse paints a deeper picture. “Walked with no one and talked with no one/And I had nothing but shadows,” it goes, and I would have loved to have heard Billie or Dinah start off like that, a prelude to a bluesy lament that gets turned around like this: “Then one morning you passed and I brightened at last.” Someone (maybe in the original musical) has come along to reverse the emotional fortunes of our singer by pointing, metaphorically at least, towards the sunshine. That’s all it takes, but naturally there’s the implication that the reason the singer can “greet the day and complete the day” with a more positive attitude is that love has entered the picture.

Without the verse, “On The Sunny Side Of The Street” is nothing like a love song; it’s like “Swinging On A Star” or “Happy Days Are Here Again,” a mood elevator. Things will be better, it assures us. But what about “walked with no one and talked with no one” and those persistent shadows? In the midtown theater where Batiste and his band turned it into a sing-along, there were so many ominous portents outside, the shadows of uncertainty and fear. All around us, we’re being shouted at to be afraid, and no one can honestly say that these aren’t dark times. But Batiste gave the crowd its cue, and we sang words our grandparents knew. “Just direct your feet to the sunny side of the street.”

paris au go go


“This wasn’t the film we had imagined, the perfect film each of us carried within, the film we would have liked to have made or perhaps even to have lived” – Masculin Feminin, Jean-Luc Godard

The idea we had of Paris was in the images in the films of Godard and Truffaut, the photos of Francoise Hardy by Jean-Marie Perier. For another generation, Paris was A Movable Feast, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the parties and cafes Woody Allen recreated in Midnight In Paris, but in the ‘60s and into the ‘70s we went to see every movie, and I think we would have watched them even without subtitles, looked at the clothes, listened to the soundtracks, gazed at the young women, Anna Karina dancing in Bande a Part, Chantal Gota cutting a ye-ye song in Masculin Feminin, Francoise Dorleac in La Peau Douce, Jean Seberg selling the Herald-Tribune in the Paris streets. The pop music made in Paris didn’t travel then, so we didn’t hear the ye-ye girls on the radio or see the Vogue Records EPs in record stores, or else we’d have been seduced by them the way we were by Bardot, Deneuve, Karina and Dorleac. Years later, we found those records — France Gall, Sylvie Vartan, Liz Brady — and records recorded in French by Sandie Shaw, Dusty Springfield and Marianne Faithfull, and although you might not think it possible, they made those English girls, to ears not attuned to the nuances of language, even more seductive. France was not good at rock and roll, let’s be honest, but at this branch of pop they excelled, music that felt free and frivolous; in Masculin Feminin, Goya sings something called “Si Tu Gagnes Au Flipper,” which translates to “If You Win At Pinball,” and it’s adorable nonsense: “Au stock américain, tu vas pour t’habiller/Tu viens faire le malin, en blouson chemise rayée” (“At the American store, you go to buy yourself clothes/You just try to show off in your striped shirt and jacket.” That is, in its way, perfection.

The Paris in our minds was liberated and indulgent, afternoons frittered away over black coffee, long-haired girls in mini-skirts dancing to a kind of jazzy French approximation of actual jazz, intellectual flirtation. London swung, and the U.K. was where all the cool groups came from, but even The Beatles and The Stones would have told you that they modeled so much of their attitude on the nouvelle vague, that A Hard Day’s Night was pop Godard, that Marianne Faithfull was a British version of Francoise Hardy. Paris was where “Au Go Go” came from, the term that encapsulates the mid-’60s in six letters. Au Go Go meant lively, excessive, spirited, upbeat, and it was applied to everything. Au Go Go was the ‘60s before the Summer of Love, and it was a multicultural invention: watch any party or nightclub scene from a movie from 1964 through 1966, any scene where guys in turtlenecks and girls in high boots are doing some version of The Frug or The Shing-a-Ling while a song by a beat group plays on the hi-fi: Sixties Au Go Go.

A week before the attacks on Paris, I sat in a packed cinema in Brooklyn and watched two parts of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1: Noli Me Tangere, a 1971 film that runs over 13 hours and features Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto. I only made it through the first 3 1/2 hours, but it reminded me that that was how I used to spend so much of my time, in dark rooms watching French films, including ones by Rivette like Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs To Us) and Celine et Julie vont en bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating), Eric Rohmer, and Jean Eustache (La Maman et la Putain). Celine et Julie and the Eustache were long (over three hours) and demanding, but I was gripped by cinema, and especially by the French directors who started out as critics at Cahiers du Cinema. The other night, 24 hours after Paris was wracked by inexplicable chaos, I went to see Kent Jones’s new documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut about the 1967 book of their conversations. I’d never read anything like that: one filmmaker interrogating another about every detail, every creative decision. Within the doc are clips from Truffaut’s own films, and I was reminded how much the Paris of my imagination was drawn from those movies. Godard and Truffaut and their contemporaries liberated movie-making from the studio and took their actors and cameras into the Paris streets, and although it was a different form of film fantasy — in reality, no one is as effortlessly glamorous and charismatic as Belmondo and Seberg in A Bout De Souffle — it felt more immediate, more like life.

Although I love so much French music, Serge Gainsbourg and his women, Aznavour and Becaud, all those ye-ye girls, those are things I had to circle back to and retroactively discover. The movies, though, I caught as ‘60s and ‘70s imports and revivals, and I keep revisiting them. I became unreasonably delighted when I saw that Hulu has the whole Criterion Collection, and the first thing I watched when I subscribed was Masculin Feminin. I remembered seeing it for the first time, and then again when the old Carnegie Hall Cinema screened every Godard film over the course of a ‘70s summer. Everyone knows now the cafe scene in Bande a Part, but then, it wasn’t so familiar; it felt spontaneous and alive. If I were visiting Paris, like Owen Wilson in Woody’s love letter, I’d want to sit on a corner at midnight and have a mysterious car take me to that cafe in 1964.

beach boys r.s.v.p.


Capitol Records wanted a new Beach Boys album in the stores in time for Christmas 1965, but Brian Wilson was still immersed in the music that would become Pet Sounds, and the group had already released holiday and live albums the year before. That might’ve been an opportune time for a Greatest Hits LP (they’d scored around a dozen Top 20 singles by then), but instead everyone decided to book a few sessions at United Western in September to create a faux-Beach Boys Party: the guys brought acoustic guitars, harmonica and some rudimentary percussion (Hal Blaine played ashtrays), and ran through a collection of mostly cover tunes. Then they added ambient house-party chatter and Beach Boys Party! was in the stores, fifty years ago this week.

The sessions involved a lot of goofing around: they did some Lennon & McCartney and Dylan songs, a few novelties (“Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow,” “Alley Oop”), some Leiber & Stoller (none of those attempts — “Riot In Cell Block #9,” “Ruby Baby,” “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” “One Kiss Led To Another” — made the original album), they harmonized beautifully on The Everly Brothers’ “Devoted To You” and The Crystals’ “There’s No Other (Like My Baby),” mocked Sonny Bono. Dean Torrence from Jan & Dean dropped by to sing on “Barbara Ann.” They took a couple of messy stabs at “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Bootlegs of these recordings have been bouncing around for years, but now selections from the sessions are being officially released on Capitol’s Beach Boys Party! Uncovered and Unplugged, for fans of studio chatter and multiple discarded takes. Listeners will get five shots at “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away.” The track listing identifies many selections as “Dialog” and “Fooling Around,” and the whole thing has been stripped of the overdubbed “party” elements, so this is bare-bones (I haven’t heard the Capitol assemblage yet, but have spent far too much time with these sessions: there are only a couple of “Mountain of Love”s on U&U, but trust me, they did it over and over).

Some folks call this the first “Unplugged” album, but what it most reminds me of is the period when The Beatles were mucking about in the studio trying to make the album that was nearly Get Back and became Let It Be: a lot of strumming on half-remembered oldies, jockeying for band dominance, creative tension. You — or at least I — can hear things pulling apart. Brian is there, but he doesn’t do very much, and why should he? He has much bigger things on his mind than wasting precious studio time doing other people’s material; he adds his harmonies to “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” as he always did live (the song had already been preserved on Beach Boys Concert in ’64), and sweetly blends with Mike on “Devoted To You,” but otherwise he’s not really playing this party game. The “Produced by Brian Wilson” credit seems almost insulting, because for the most part it’s Mike’s show, even more so on the naked sessions: Mike takes lead most of the Leiber and Stoller tunes that hit the cutting room floor (is that Carl or Brian on “Ruby Baby”?), does his shticky thing on “Alley Oop” and “Hully Gully,” and can be heard doing a nasal Sonny Bono/Bob Dylan whine on a creakingly unfunny “protest” parody of Bono’s “Laugh At Me.” Al Jardine takes the sincere lead on Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and the “Blowin’ In The Wind” outtake, but he was the group’s token folkie, and you can almost hear Mike in the background sneering and throwing potato chips at him.

Beach Boys Party! hit the stores in November, and a few weeks later, The Beatles released Rubber Soul, and that must have made Brian nuts: his group was forced to go in and cut this throwaway album — with three Beatles songs on side one, and “Ticket To Ride” tried to boot — and then, when The Beach Boys’ “real” new single “The Little Girl I Once Knew” barely squeaked into the top 20, Capitol pulled “Barbara Ann” from Party! as an emergency 45 and Brian had to watch that go to #2 in early 1966 while he was crafting an album worthy to stand along The Beatles’ latest. I can imagine (well, not imagine completely, because history has been pretty clear on this) Mike hearing Pet Sounds and saying, look, Brian, we just had a smash hit single with “Barbara Ann,” why don’t you write us a follow-up that sounds like that? This had to have been torture: a song by The Regents, with Dean Torrence on vocals, from an album made solely to sit under Christmas trees (gatefold cover! photo insert!), and this is what the public wants? Beach Boys Party! sounds to me like an attempt to take some of the power away from Brian. Or maybe I’m being too harsh; maybe it was to take some of the burden off him, give him more time. But Beach Boys Party! went to #6 and Pet Sounds stalled at #10, and therein lies madness.

Everyone was moving forward as 1965 was ending. Compare U&U to what Dylan was up to (as exhaustively documented on the essential The Cutting Edge box). The Stones started Aftermath that December, and The Beatles were finishing and releasing Rubber Soul. The Beach Boys put out an album that pretended to be something it wasn’t, that made fun of their own hits. Listen to them messing around with “Satisfaction,” like they can’t quite figure out what it is; they try to do Dylan’s “She Belongs To Me” and it falls apart in non-comprehending chaos. Mike is much more comfortable digging into his crate of oldies, Carl and Dennis grab on to The Beatles tunes like a life raft, and Brian is in the corner. This isn’t his party, but he’ll have to clean up when it’s over.

uptown girl


Last night Kacey Musgraves became the first country artist to headline the Apollo, and so the first to say “fuck” on the stage and celebrate marriage equality, and if you have any doubt that the Republican nominee, whomever he might be (it won’t be Carly), is doomed, you might point to Musgraves as symptomatic of the GOP’s utter futility: like another woman who recently sold out the venue, Amy Schumer, Musgraves represents an unstoppable libertarian force. Young women cheering Schumer’s freewheeling sexuality and Musgraves’ live-and-let-live philosophy are not going to vote for one of the rigid old dudes who strike a moral pose, stand by Kim Davis, badger Hillary by proxy in the House of Representatives. Hillary can make you cringe when she’s trying to be likable and relatable. That’s not her schtick, and she needs to cut that out. Where she excels is in shutting down the toxic bullshit of the Republicans who can only sputter impotently. She can marshall an army of women in their 20s and 30s (Musgraves is 27, Schumer is 34) if she just says, look, I can keep the jackals at bay. I’ll have a veto pen. That’s the only requirement, really. She’ll never be able to land a joke; she sucks at that. But she’s not going to do any damage to the republic.

If there is hope for American Values, it’s Musgraves and Schumer and the women of Broad City (Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson), Lena Dunham and Mindy Kaling, pop feminists Katy Perry (who’s already working for the Hillary cause), Beyoncé and Taylor Swift. I can’t speak to whether these women are “liberal” or “conservative,” but I can tell for sure that they won’t have their behavior or their bodies monitored by meddling dudes. And if Musgraves’ show Means Anything, it means don’t let anyone tell you how to live: sleep with an ex, smoke some weed, kiss anyone you fancy, keep your nose on your side of the fence. Be a dime store cowgirl, don’t worry about not being pageant material, and it’ll all work out, or not. In any case, it’s no one else’s biscuits. Kacey isn’t as brazen a hussy as Miranda Lambert (although she did co-write one of Lambert’s anthems, “Mama’s Broken Heart,” and sang it at the Apollo); she’s more a “bless your heart” girl who just does her own thing. She’s a charmer with bite, and she seems as though she’d be a blast to hang with. Her tour is called the Country & Western Rhinestone Revue, and it’s filled with sparkly things, corny banter with the band, costume changes, but underneath the shiny surface is a will of steel.

Kacey Musgraves is a small town girl from Texas, and she makes what I suppose you have to call country music, and there are certain expectations that come with that gig. Not fulfilling those expectations means that country radio doesn’t have much use for her, but not only doesn’t that matter, it’s like a badge. What do the people who packed the Apollo — women, mostly, who have committed all the lyrics, not only the singles’, to memory — care about airplay? Musgraves speaks to her fans plainly and directly, and her songs are as American as you can get; conservatives like to whine about the erosion of Freedom, which strikes me as mainly paranoia about guns, the right to discriminate, and the obsession with controlling women. In Kacey’s world, freedom is something more accepting and messy. We’re all conflicted fuck-ups, she says, so why point fingers and judge? Musgraves writes sing-along tunes about autonomy and acceptance, and when she picks songs to cover, they’re songs about assertiveness: TLC’s “No Scrubs” and Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking.” She’s representative of a sizable 2016 voting bloc, I think, and if that’s the case, I’m not that concerned.