walk away


There was a moment in the summer/fall of 1966 when The Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” and The Critters’ “Mr. Dieingly Sad” were both in the Top 20. Also spinning around in the musical air were “Eleanor Rigby,” “Cherish,” The Four Seasons’ “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” Then came The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Rain On The Roof,” The Cyrkle’s “Turn Down Day” and The Mama’s and The Papa’s “Look Through My Window,” and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds was weaving its melancholy beauty. It was a particular type of ornate ’60s pop with undertones of sadness, wistful melodies and lyrics about things that were just out of reach. “Wouldn’t it be nice?,” the songs asked. You don’t know how many times I’ve wished that I could hold you. I feel my tears, they fall like rain. All the lonely people. All that rain: The Spoonful’s, and The Mama’s and Papa’s’ (“And the rain beats on my roof”). What was going on here, all this minor-key meditation? It was as though the freedom to run wild musically, throw in elements that were new to pop, tapped a well of emotion. McCartney, Brian Wilson, John Sebastian, John Phillips (and you can throw in Paul Simon, whose songs on that autumn’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme included “Cloudy,” “The Dangling Conversation” and “Homeward Bound”), they were all in their 20s, these contemplative young men.

Michael Brown was even younger, in his teens, when he co-wrote “Walk Away Renee” for his group The Left Banke, and unless you were tuned into the radio at the time, you don’t know what a shock it was. Not simply the strings, so abrupt and prominent, although that’s what led people to tag the record “Baroque-Rock” (which meant nothing, really), but the whole momentum of the record, how the chorus just erupted. How could a song be so abstract and cut so deeply? If you begin a song with the word “and,” you’d better have something special up your sleeve, because you’re dropping the listener into mid-conversation (The Zombies did it on “Tell Her No”: “And if she should tell you, ‘Come closer’,” like you’ve wandered past two guys talking in a bar, and you think, uh oh, I’d better steer clear of this…, and “Look Through My Window” starts mid-thought also). The first line we hear Steve Martin, The Left Banke’s singer, utter is, “And when I see the sign that points one way.” That’s an entrance like no other song I know, and the fact that it’s been set up by that gorgeous four-note string intro makes it even more intriguing. It has all the signs of a break-up song, but the verses are so short — only two lines each — that we have to fill in the narrative. “You’re not to blame,” he says, but for what? The rain is beating down, the sidewalks are empty, all this anguish is evoked with so little actual information.

That melody is so damned pretty, and the hook is so dramatic, that the song has had an amazing afterlife. It was a hit for The Four Tops, and Levi sings the hell of it, but he throws off the rhythm of the chorus when he hits the “me” hard on “You won’t see me follow you back home,” where Steve Martin makes “won’t see me” one seamless phrase. In the ’60s there were a number of covers (The Cowsills, The Tremeloes, The Blades of Grass, Orpheus), and through the decades it’s been picked up by a whole array of artists: Rickie Lee Jones, Linda Ronstadt & Ann Savoy, Marshall Crenshaw, Elliott Smith, Badly Drawn Boy, Tori Amos, Southside Johnny. Billy Bragg took the tune, played on guitar, as a thematic backdrop for a monologue about young love and disillusionment.

It’s the most famous song that Michael Brown, who passed away this week, leaves behind, but among Left Banke fans it’s not the universal favorite. Some, like me, like “Pretty Ballerina” even more, with this ingenious lyric:

I had a date with a pretty ballerina
Her hair so brilliant that it hurt my eyes
I asked her for this dance and then she obliged me
Was I surprised? Yeah
Was I surprised? No not at all

Some think “Desiree,” a thrilling, dynamic tour de force, is his masterpiece, his “Good Vibrations,” and I wouldn’t argue with that. A keyboard player I know is inordinately taken with “Barterers and Their Wives,” and another friend posted “She May Call You Up Tonight” on her Facebook wall. And there are wise folks who swear by Brown’s first album with Stories, or his lesser-known work with Montage and The Beckies.

Up at the top, I mentioned The Critters’ “Mr. Dieingly Sad,” a song that shared a moment on the charts with “Walk Away Renee.” The group’s bass player, Kenny Gorka, also passed away within the last few days. For years after his stint in The Critters, he ran The Bitter End on Bleecker Street, and presided over the club’s activities with warmth and grace to all, especially the talent and the industry freeloaders who congregated by the bar. I’d always wanted to ask Kenny if that’s his bass line on “Mr. Dieingly Sad,” or if notorious producer Artie Ripp brought in a session ringer, but no matter. It’s the pulse of the thing, the record’s center, so I’m going to go on thinking it’s Kenny’s part. He was the last link to the golden years of Bleecker Street, and will be missed.

dion’s downtown music


When I tell people that Richard Barone and I are working on an album celebrating New York City songwriters from the 1960s, they usually think that I mean the pop and R&B writing teams hammering out the hits in midtown: Goffin & King, Mann & Weil, Sedaka & Greenfield, Pomus & Shuman, Barry & Greenwich, Bacharach & David. Which is a fair assumption, but I explain that what I mean is: if you’re starting at 1650 Broadway or the Brill Building, you can walk a few blocks to the F or D train, and go downtown to end up at West 4th Street (the “Positively” in the famous Dylan song), where most of the songwriters were working out their songs — sans ampersanded partners — in the clubs where as John Phillips wrote, “after every number they’d pass the hat.”

Ben Yagoda touches on that scene in his new book The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and The Rebirth of the Great American Songbook: “Most of these young men [he fails to mention that some women were hanging around as well] slung their acoustic guitars on their backs, a la Woody Guthrie, and congregated around Greenwich Village coffee-houses and clubs…The man who drew everyone’s attention was Bob Dylan, but among the others crafting impressive and decreasingly generic new songs in the early sixties were Tim Hardin, Fred Neil, Jim McGuinn, Richard Farina, and John Sebastian, playing ‘jug band music or rhythm and blues’ or the other genres his band, The Lovin’ Spoonful would later memorialize in ‘Do You Believe In Magic?'” Yagoda also mentions Paul Simon, and notes that he had his foot in the midtown door as well, scoring a ’50s hit with “Hey, Schoolgirl” as the Jerry in Tom & Jerry.

Of all the writers Richard and I are honoring on Sorrows and Promises, the ones that raise a few eyebrows are Buddy Holly, Dion, Lou Reed and, to an extent, Paul Simon. With Holly, it’s true, the inclusion is somewhat symbolic and could fall into the category of music-fan-fiction: what if he hadn’t gone on the Winter Dance Party tour, braved the brutal cold and wound up on an ill-fated flight in February 1959? He was living a few steps from Washington Square Park at that point, writing and demoing songs in his Village apartment, going to the folk clubs. He’d have been there when Dylan came to town and — you can be pretty certain — Dylan, a huge fan, would have sought him out. Or imagine this: the Winter Dance Party wraps up with no tragic incident. Holly and Dion meet on that tour, become friendly, as they did, and when they get back to NYC they find that they’re both being drawn to folk and blues, that they both love Hank Williams and Bo Diddley. Dion, in the early ’60s, signed a big-for-its-time contract with Columbia Records and started to become torn between the swaggering pop that made him a star and the cry of the blues.

On Sorrows and Promises, Richard covers a Dion song that was tucked away at the time on the B side of a 1964 45: “The Road I’m On (Gloria).” The A side was a version of Willie Dixon’s “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” which will give you some idea of what Dion was up to in that Beatlemania Spring. He was going in a different direction. “The Road I’m On (Gloria)” (written by Dion for and about 16 Magazine’s Gloria Stavers) starts off with a mournful harmonica, and then Dion enters with a voice that’s weary and reflective. It has the texture of pre-electric Dylan songs like “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “Girl From The North Country.” and I’ve always wondered what might have happened if Columbia had encouraged this musical mood and released a whole album of Dylan’s folk and blues, produced by Tom Wilson. He cut so much buried material during this period, so much bruised, soulful music that only later — after “Abraham, Martin and John” — got some label attention: listen to his original songs “Knowing I Won’t Go Back There,” “Now” and “Wake Up Baby” alongside the Dylan, Tom Paxton and Willie Dixon songs on Wonder Where I’m Bound.

One of the goals of this project is to expose songs like “The Road I’m On (Gloria).” So many people, even Dion fans, are probably unaware of it, and don’t realize how truly connected to the New York City folk scene he was in the ’60s. Oddly, there is one cover version of the song I’m aware of, by a British artist who released it in 1964 as a single under the pseudonym Toby Tyler. Later, Tyler recorded under his own name, Marc Bolan.

So, I haven’t previously used this space to self-promote anything I’m up to. But we’re doing the whole crowd-funding thing on this album, about which you can read more here, and pre-order if you’re so inclined.


do you know what it means to miss new orleans?


Jazz Fest was where I first saw Roy Orbison, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley and Bobby “Blue” Bland. And sets by Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Richard Thompson where I decided that I could just watch them sing any song that popped into their heads and I’d be happy. I caught The Dixie Chicks there, before Natalie joined the band and they took over the world, and watched a teenaged Harry Connick Jr. play James Booker-inspired piano (and not sing a note) in the Jazz Tent. I spent hours in the Gospel Tent, and when I wasn’t at the actual fairgrounds, I’d catch Los Lobos in the late-night hours at Tipitina’s, Aaron Neville singing doo-wop at Snug Harbor, or Al Green at the Saenger Theater. I’d meet friends for drinks at Coop’s Place on Decatur Street, book dinners at Brigtsen’s or stand on line at K-Paul’s or Mother’s. It was the first and only place I’ve eaten alligator. One night in a downpour, Kate and I took a tour of voodoo houses. I fell in love a few times, drank a lot, learned to like grits, and fish that was blackened. And every year, there was at least one set by The Neville Brothers that was as purely joyful as any music I could imagine being in the room with. They were the house band of of my New Orleans experience.

No doubt you’ve heard that the surviving members of the Grateful Dead are doing a 50th anniversary celebration/goodbye gig this summer in Chicago. Before that, in May, The Neville Brothers — all four of them still with us, praise the Lord — will be playing their final date at the Saenger in New Orleans, joined by artists such as Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Trombone Shorty and Terence Blanchard. I wish I were going. The Neville Brothers are doing their final bow close to the intersection of Basin Street and Canal Street, which is poetically perfect. They’re staying at home, playing for the people in their city along with the fans wrapping up a Jazz Fest weekend. Not that they had the option, from a box office standpoint, of playing three Chicago stadium dates like the “Dead.” But the idea of them doing one last New Orleans show, with contemporaries like Toussaint and Thomas on board, like a mini-Jazz Fest, has a sentimental punch that, sorry, the Dead shows just can’t match.

Back in ’99, I worked on one album with Art, Aaron, Charles and Cyril, spending some sweltering days in the studio, visiting Aaron’s swanky new digs and being guided by Art to a po-boy emporium uptown near where the brothers grew up. We also went to one of Emeril Lagasse’s joints, and Art pronounced the shrimp as “cold-blooded.” That meant he dug it. They were already the old men of New Orleans funk then, having been at it in different incarnations since the ’50s. Art cut some solo sides for Speciality, and was a member of the four-piece machine called The Meters, along with Leo Nocentelli, George Porter Jr. and Zigaboo Modeliste. (The fact that The Meters are not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is worse than an oversight; it’s a scandal.) And Aaron, way before his middle-period emergence as Linda Ronstadt’s singing partner and successful solo artist, recorded classic songs — “Over You,” “Tell It Like It Is,” “Hercules” “Where Is My Baby” — for a series of labels.

What I learned from my brief stint as their A&R guy was that each brother comes in the door with a different musical, philosophical and temperamental agenda: Aaron wanted to do “If I Had A Hammer” (that was fine with me), Charles contributed the jazzy vibe of “Valence Street” (the title track), Art co-wrote “Real Funk” and “The Dealer,” Cyril lobbied for “Over Africa” by Gretchen Peters. It was a creative and diplomatic challenge to make a cohesive album at that point in their career, with Aaron so much more prominent, and while I’d never say it’s one of their best — those would be Fiyo On The Bayou, Yellow Moon and a couple of live ones (Nevillization, Authorized Bootleg) — It’s a solid piece of their discography, and got them a Grammy nomination.

And because I was a member of their extended family for that period, I got to be backstage for their climactic set at that year’s Jazz Fest, and look out at the crowd that, year after year, I’d been a part of. That was my last visit, almost sixteen years go. I stopped going to Jazz Fest when the headliners became more along the lines of Phish and The Dave Matthews Band, and now it resembles a local edition of Bonnaroo, or Coachella with Crawfish Monica. I’ve wanted to head down since after Katrina, but haven’t found the right time. Still, there were all those shows, all those versions of “Hey Pocky Way” and “Mojo Hannah” and “Brother John” and medleys that felt like once the groove was hit, almost anything could sneak in, “Bony Maronie,” or “What’s Going On.” The Neville Brothers are retiring and, to me, that’s big musical news.

decisions, decisions


Text: What is the best Dylan album?

Reply: Highway 61 Revisited. It was a simple back-and-forth, but it couldn’t stay simple, because behind the question, obviously, is a desert-island-disc premise: what if you were somewhere that for some reason could only accommodate your bringing one Dylan album in your carry-on, and you had to leave all the other Dylan albums you love back home? There is no such place. In the actual world, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde and Blood On The Tracks all share real or virtual shelf space and no one has to choose among them. Sometimes Love & Theft is my favorite Dylan album, but that doesn’t mean it’s the Best, and it doesn’t knock other Dylan albums down in order. It’s just a game we play, and no one takes it seriously except Kanye West, who thinks that giving trophies to Taylor Swift and Beck are a kind of negation of Beyonce’s artistry.

This week Losers Lounge, a musical aggregation under the direction of Joe McGinty, staged a song-off between Blondie and The Pretenders. It was done, as all the LL’s are, with spirit and affection, as a parade of singers joined the band to do either a Blondie or a Pretenders song — damn, those bands have a lot of ace material — and at the end of the night, audience applause determined the victor. The Pretenders won on Wednesday. Blondie won the following night, the show I saw, and it seemed a clear decision to me for that night, that show, that group of songs. It’s easy to underrate Blondie, even though (maybe even because) they sold so many records, had so many hits. Maybe blondes are always suspect, in a way, for those who value “authenticity.” Whatever that means in a pop context. Is Debbie Harry more of a calculated figure than Chrissie Hynde, Patti Smith or Joan Jett? is Blondie less true to a central idea (pop in a cultural blender) than the Pretenders are? Both bands speak to me, and the fun of the Losers Lounge match was that we got to hear how much they share rather than what divides them.

I chose Blondie on the cheer meter, maybe because it had been a long time since I’d heard so many Blondie songs crammed into a two-hour set. I take the Pretenders for granted; “Kid,” “The Talk of The Town,” “Back On The Chain Gang”…their album The Singles is one to grab for that Island of Limited Choices (in a way I’m glad it doesn’t go up to “I’ll Stand By You” because that could be anyone’s anthem, and you don’t want to skip tracks when you’re on musical rations). But when I think about it, there aren’t many pop albums that start as strong as the first four tracks on Parallel Lines: “Hanging On The Telephone,” “One Way Or Another,” “Picture This,” “Fade Away and Radiate.” And then on the other side, “Will Anything Happen?,” “Sunday Girl,” “Heart of Glass” and a Buddy Holly cover. A bunch of those songs were covered the other night, plus “Call Me,” “Dreaming,” “Rapture,” “The Tide Is High,” “X Offender”: you can see why it wasn’t just homefield advantage that scored Blondie their “win” at Joe’s Pub. Factor in some missing songs — “In The Flesh,” “Look Good In Blue,” “Little Girl Lies,” “(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear,” “In The Sun” (I’m sure I’m forgetting other key tunes) — and the Blondie resume becomes even more impressive.

Debating the undebatable (Mantle or Mays? Waylon or Willie? The West Wing or Hill Street Blues? Tom Stoppard or David Mamet?) isn’t really about deciding, or convincing someone about the rightness of your position; it’s an aesthetic variation of fuck-marry-kill. It’s a way to work out for yourself what you value: consistency or flashes of brilliance, sensitivity or cold-mindedness, spotty originality or clever thievery. The answer is usually some form of all of it, because people with rigid ideas about what makes something great might as well be living on that desert island.

winter, still


Gone, it’s all over and you’re gone
But the memory lives on
Although our dreams lie buried in the snow

It’s a whole musical subsection: sad weather songs. “Don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky, stormy weather.” Or “Here’s that rainy day they told me about.” This has been an especially cruel winter, everyone knows. Friends have been clobbered by colds and far worse. Hearts have been battered. And there are only so many rain songs you can listen to. When you think about it, rain has gotten a bad rap for the most part, being blamed (literally, like Diane Warren’s “Blame It On The Rain”) for all sorts of romantic crimes, and snow has gotten a pass. Isn’t snow delightful?, songs ask us. “Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!” It’s a blanket of cheer, an enabler of intimacy, an excuse to be playful and childlike. I don’t know: I just went out for coffee and a muffin — just across the street, no major trudge — and did not feel like romping. I felt like napping. Like until April.

Randy Newman’s “Snow” is the antidote to all that snow sugar-coating. It’s not one of his best-known songs, certainly not even one of his best-known weather songs (let’s see, there’s “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today,” and “Louisiana 1927,” and “I Love L.A.” is mostly about how swell the climate is). One of his earliest covers was The Fleetwoods’ “They Tell Me It’s Summer,” a morose summer song like Goffin & King’s “It Might As Well Rain Until September.” So he has one of the great rain songs, a significant flood song, and a song that puts a depressing spin on summer. And he has “Snow.” I can’t find a version of him singing it anywhere. Not among demos, or live performances, or outtakes, which is strange. You’d think he’d have pulled it out at one recorded show, and there has to be a demo of it in someone’s possession.

The definitive take on “Snow” is on the expanded edition of Nilsson Sings Newman, which in a way counts as a Newman version, since he plays piano for Nilsson. As on the rest of the album, it’s just the two of them, and Nilsson’s vocal is so naked: this is a memory song as well as a sad weather song (a lot of songs are both). He and his girl used to go to this park, now she’s gone — sometimes he thinks he hears her voice in the wind — and the ground is covered, burying the ground and the past:

Snow, everywhere I go
As the cold winter sun sinks low
I walk alone through the snow

Harpers Bizarre cut “Snow” on their album Anything Goes, a collection that came floating out of Burbank at the end of 1967 and was defiantly whimsical, not in a psychedelic-pop way, although there are touches of that, but in a what-are-they-up-to way. It’s an album where Cole Porter and Randy Newman share cotton candy, and “Snow” — that poem about how bleak the whiteness is — sits between Cahn and Van Heusen’s insanely giddy “Pocketful of Miracles” and Gordon and Warren’s antique “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” In the post-Pepper world of late ’67, sure, anything went; the whole idea of pop music was tossed into the air like multi-colored confetti (Anything Goes shared shelf space with Their Satanic Majesties Request). HB’s “Snow” is stuck there in mid-album all forlorn, and the arrangement (Van Dyke Parks’s, I’m guessing, although it could be Nick DeCaro’s) has that late-’60s Warner Brothers shimmer. You can hear, courtesy of YouTube, what it sounds like without the group’s vocals, and it still tugs at the heart.

Claudine Longet murmured “Snow” on A&M, and in later years it’s been covered by artists such as Saint Etienne and Tracey Thorn from Everything But The Girl. I’m looking south from my window, and there’s only white where downtown should be. Scarves and gloves are still waiting by the door for the necessary clomp to a showcase four blocks away that might as well be miles. I walk alone, through the snow.

you can’t go back and you can’t stand still


On June 18, Jerry Garcia will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame along with his lyricist partner Robert Hunter. I have the feeling that would be a surprise to a lot of people who are resistant to the appeal of the Grateful Dead, but it’s an acknowledgment that whatever responsibility the Dead has to shoulder for launching hundreds of song-averse jam bands, and whatever their reputation for futzing around in search of the platonic ideal of the mystical musical force, they could always go back to actual songs. Like the eight compositions Hunter wrote words for on Workingman’s Dead (mostly with Garcia; Phil Lesh helped out on “Cumberland Blues,” and Hunter came up with “Easy Wind” on his own). That was the album that introduced “Uncle John’s Band” and “Casey Jones” (the opening and closing cuts), and showed that the Dead were more than a rambling sort-of-psychedelic-blues-band. Pigpen’s grumbling take on the blues was deftly moved over to the corner, and second-guitarist, second-vocalist Bob Weir hadn’t yet emerged as a songwriter (a category in which he also would perenially finish second despite such live favorites as “Sugar Magnolia” — lyrics by Hunter — and “One More Saturday Night”). At their peak, which for me means Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, they were Garcia and Hunter’s band. American Beauty has a lovely Hunter-Phil Lesh song (“Box of Rain”), Pigpen stops in for his self-penned “Operator,” and Weir steps up on “Sugar Magnolia” and “Truckin’,” but there was no mistaking where the heartbeat of the band was.

A few weeks after Garcia and Hunter are honored for their craft, the surviving musical members of the Grateful Dead are going to play a few shows at a stadium in Chicago. The role of Jerry Garcia will be played guitarwise by Trey Anastasio of the band Phish, and I assume it will be played vocally by Weir and keyboardist Bruce Hornsby. For some reason, the prospect of this is tremendously exciting to a great number of people. Saturday at 11:00 a.m. ET, the internet was stormed by a reportedly half-million computers attempting to buy tickets to see this final go-round for what is being called the Grateful Dead. They can call it whatever they like. The Grateful Dead without Jerry Garcia is like Led Zeppelin without Robert Plant and Jimmy Page: Garcia wrote and sang most of their essential songs, and played lead guitar on all of them, and if the Dead wanted to do something to honor his contribution on this 50th anniversary of the band’s inception, they’d call this a Garcia tribute concert and invite singers and guitarists to Chicago to sing and play Garcia-Hunter songs along with the four members of the band. But then they probably wouldn’t have broken the internet on Saturday morning. People have to pretend that this is the last opportunity they have to see the Grateful Dead.

I know I was lucky. My college years coincided with the Workingman’s Dead-American Beauty years. I saw the Grateful Dead everywhere from the Cafe Au Go-Go to Winterland. They were at the Fillmore East and The Capitol Theater all the time. My friends and I bought tickets ($5) to most of the Fillmore East late shows, took drugs to, we thought, enhance the Deadly glow, and took the subway all the way downtown from The Bronx. Being a fan of the Dead didn’t take much effort then, but it did take patience and forgiveness. Their shows could be stumbling, misshapen things. Bob Weir, for all his abilities, was not a convincing interpreter of countryish songs. He mangled “Mama Tried” and “El Paso” more often than not, and insisted on singing the key line of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” as “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to do.” The band almost always kicked into gear on Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” but other covers — “Good Lovin’,” “Dancing In The Street” — revealed their fatal lack of soul.

Sometimes, there were very long drum solos.

But even after we were disappointed, we always went back. Because on those nights when it all mysteriously jelled, they took the audience on rippling ride. I was at the Fillmore East when Duane Allman and Peter Green joined the band on stage, early in the morning, surfing on shimmering waves of guitar. But it wasn’t only, or even mostly, about the jamming, and that’s what all the acolytes forget. Garcia and Hunter wrote songs — just listen to the ones on Europe ’72: “He’s Gone,” “Brown-Eyed Woman,” “Ramblin’ Rose,” “”Tennessee Jed” — that I’d put up against the repertoire of The Band, Creedence, or any other American Band from that period. Which brings me back to these upcoming shows in Chicago. I wouldn’t go see something called The Band without Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel, or a Creedence Clearwater Revival without John Fogerty. It seems disrespectful to the spirit of what the bands were, and what they meant. All those people who scrambled for tickets this weekend were chasing something they’re never going to catch.

what’s a girl supposed to do?


There aren’t many opening lines as good as “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.” The song, by Walter Gold, John Gluck, Jr. and Herb Weiner, didn’t need much more than that: what’s gotten her so distraught? “You would cry too if it happened to you.” What? We’ve come into the story at midpoint, like when Dylan opens “All Along The Watchtower” with “There must be some way out of here.” Then we find out what’s been going on. Johnny, the singer’s boyfriend, is missing. No one knows where he’s gone, but word is that he walked off holding hands with Judy, that manipulative slut (we assume), and the next time we see J&J, she’s wearing his ring. Which raises the question, why isn’t the singer, let’s call her Lesley, wearing his ring? “He’s supposed to be mine,” she insists. Maybe that’s not the whole story. Maybe that “supposed to be mine” means “in an ideal world,” or “if he knew who I was.” Girl group records in the early ’60s were filled with that sort of projection: I wanna love him so bad, he’s so fine, but he doesn’t even know that I exist. We find out in the sequel, “Judy’s Turn To Cry,” that there really was a pre-existing boyfriend-girlfriend condition, but with only “It’s My Party” to go on, the evidence of Lesley’s spoiling everyone’s fun (go ahead, guys, play my records; I’m going to stand around and cry, but help yourself to more chips), the whole incident could be about an unrequited crush.

Lesley Gore has been celebrated over the last couple of days as a pre-feminist icon because of “You Don’t Own Me” (another dramatic opening line: “You don’t own me, I’m not just one of your many toys”), and good for her for standing up for herself. “Don’t tell me what to do!!,” she yells, and I can imagine that young women in the early ’60s found that pretty daring and empowering (as no one would’ve said then). But it wasn’t typical of Lesley’s point of view as defined for her by the writers who came up with her material. On “Maybe I Know,” she has all kinds of evidence that her guy is unfaithful, but what can she do? “Deep down inside he loves me, though he may run around.” She is either very perceptive, or deluded. “Look of Love,” another classic Gore 45 (it can hold its own against most Spector girl group discs you could name), is Lesley in full tortured mode, watching the guy she digs being clearly smitten with someone else (unnamed this time, but it might as well be Judy, her original nemesis; I think of them as pop’s Betty & Veronica).

One of my favorite non-hit tracks by Lesley is in the vein of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” an early girl group song that addressed what was on the minds of teenage girls caught in a romantic predicament: is this just sex, or something more? Dating back then was a constant game of advance-rebuff-readvance-yield incrementally etc., and yet there weren’t many pop songs that addressed this directly, the stance girls were expected to take. “What’s A Girl Supposed To Do” by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, was cut by The Shangri-Las as well as by Lesley Gore, but neither version was a hit. It’s pretty wonderful. In this scenario, Lesley (or Mary Weiss) meets a boy (at a party? a dance?) and he walks her home that night, and there they are at her door: what next? He looks in her eyes, so she kisses him. Her heart tells her it’s right. “What’s a girl supposed to do but hold him? So I held him.” Lesley could bemoan the complications of young romance (“Sometimes I Wish I Were A Boy,” she sang), but she could also be matter-of-fact. A sensible, sensitive big sister. “That’s The Way Boys Are,” she shrugs.

Her Quincy Jones-produced records for Mercury have irrepressible drive, and she went on to make good sides with other arrangers and producers — Jack Nitzsche, Gamble & Huff — but as big a star as she was, and as talented a singer (she did standards like “Fools Rush In” and “Misty” without a trace of awkwardness), it wasn’t a long run of hits. She should have had one with Gerry Goffin & Russ Titelman’s lovely “What Am I Gonna Do With You?” (Lesley is stuck with another guy whose behavior is not beyond reproach). At the same moment “You Don’t Own Me” was all over the radio, along came The Beatles, and although some of her best sides were still to come (“Maybe I Know,” “Look of Love”), she didn’t have another Top 10 single. She came close with a couple of early Marvin Hamlisch tunes, but I don’t think even her biggest fans would rank “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” with “She’s A Fool.”

It doesn’t matter that much. Everyone knows “It’s My Party” — Lesley’s version stomped all over the first recording of the song by Helen Shapiro, and Phil Spector was about to cut it before Q beat him out — and “You Don’t Own Me,” and she had a nice second act as a singer-songwriter and feminist prototype. She was also portrayed, loosely but recognizably, in the movie Grace Of My Heart, by Bridget Fonda (vocals by Miss Lily Banquette) as a closeted lesbian pop star. Gore collaborated on the song “My Secret Love,” and there were stories that she wasn’t happy with how the song turned out, that she insisted that no pop hits in the early ’60s ran as long (5 1/4 minutes) as the one in the film. She’s right. “My Secret Love” would never have gotten airplay on Top 40 radio. But it’s still a well-crafted scene: the songwriters know how they’ve slipped the then-subversive sexual code in, the singer shares glances with her secret girlfriend, the guys in the room are clueless.

I saw Lesley Gore live twice. Once, in the spring of 1964, when she had the unenviable assignment, along with The 4 Seasons, of setting the stage for James Brown and His Famous Flames. The second time was only a few years ago, at an outdoor girl group concert at Lincoln Center. Both times, she ran through her string of hit songs and, undaunted by the musical competition, took control. Just as she did on the ’64 T.A.M.I. Show, again with the Flames extravaganza on the bill. And The Stones, The Beach Boys, Smokey, Chuck Berry. She belonged on that stage, and let no one suggest otherwise.

it’s all over now


We can argue about the precise date that Rock ceased to matter as dominant strain of popular culture. Was it twenty years ago, or only ten? Whichever it is — and maybe you’re one of those people who think it all ended when Keith Moon or John Bonham died (there are such folks) — to claim that Rock remains central to the general discussion is like denying climate change. They will hand out Grammy Awards in Rock categories tomorrow night in Los Angeles, but probably not on television. There is no Rock record up for Record of the Year, no Rock song up for Song of the Year, and the one Rock album nominated for Album of the Year is by Beck. Morning Phase is an excellent album, but it doesn’t really rock much (that’s ok: neither does Pet Sounds), and by this point Beck is two decades into his career. Consider the distance between the artists who drove the culture trains in 1955 and 1975 and realize what a tremendous gap that is: it’s an entire generation.

Look under Best Rock Performance: Beck again, for “Blue Moon” (not the Rodgers & Hart one), plus The Arctic Monkeys, Ryan Adams, The Black Keys and Jack White, all fine, all pretty well established for a decade or more, and for Best Rock Album, U2 got a nod for their mandatory album, and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers snagged one for Hypnotic Eye. Nothing new there. While over in Popland, it’s pretty much all new blood: Meghan and Izzy, Sam Smith and Hozier. In that world, Taylor Swift and Beyonce are the old-timers. Fine, you say, but it’s the Grammys. Who cares? Outside of that conservative bubble, Rock still rules! Oh, you poor thing. It kind of rules in Nashville, where Eric Church and Miranda Lambert are what we would’ve used to call rock stars. And it rules in arenas where fans of bands like Motley Crue and The Who and Fleetwood Mac drop in to visit the old neighborhood and have a few beers with childhood pals.

The best Rock album so far in 2015 is Sleater-Kinney’s No Cities To Love, and they started out around the same time as Beck, long ago enough that their original fans — let’s say college kids in ’95-’96 — are all growed up and indulging in their own brand of wistful (albeit loud) looking-back. Same for the indiekids who bought Belle and Sebastian’s Tigermilk in ’96 and are checking out the good new one, Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance. This decade is half over and hasn’t produced one important new band. Rock had an amazing run, but forming a Rock group in 2015 is like being the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. What is the point of the Foo Fighters? Grohl is a noble-minded cat with a sense of history, but did you try to listen to that recent album? It’s a shapeless, forgettable blur.

Reading about the history of popular music, in Ben Yagoda’s The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song, Bob Stanley’s Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! or Gareth Murphy’s Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry, is like watching Rock rise and decline. An empire being constructed, an empire crumbling. In Elizabeth Wurtzel’s new book, Creatocracy: How The Constitution Invented Hollywood, a scholarly, jazzy riff on the role of copyright laws in creating a hospitable environment for American culture to thrive in, she takes off-ramps to pause and mourn. Since she quotes her sources at length, I’ll quote her:

…the last real rock star was Axl Rose, and the last reluctant rock star was Kurt Cobain, so what is the point of amping up in the garage? Even kids know this….Now that there is no money in being a musician because no one buys albums anymore, the dream is no longer to be on stage beneath the bright strobe spotlight at Madison Square Garden. The dream is a tech startup. The dream is life of headaches. Music still exists. It is still made and sold. But no one loves it the way teenagers used to love it.”

And this: “I got very attached to the music I bought. It meant a lot to me. I listened alone, and I made other people listen. And I listened alone some more. This is how I became a fanatical lover of words and melody. And there is no other way it happens. You can’t get insane over a band or a singer-songwriter because one song you bought on iTunes made you smile or teared you up. Fanaticism is a commitment, and teenagers were way in deep for many decades, because buying prerecorded music on vinyl or tape or CD pulled them in. That hardly exists anymore, and the kind of love that went with it is gone.”

Beck, Jack White, Ryan Adams, Dave Grohl, Sleater-Kinney, Green Day all caught the tail end of the storm, and they survive because a generation remembers falling for them, buying White Stripes, Whiskeytown and Nirvana CDs. The audience remembers caring, and that’s what remains of Rock: the first generation that still remembers Alan Freed, through the last generation that came of age when, or a bit after, Nirvana changed the rules for the last time. That’s the end of the line, it looks like, for the whole Rock guitar-bass-drums (maybe some sax or piano) situation as a present-tense cultural phenomenon. It’s been fun.

the october of his years


“Why can’t I be more conventional?,” Bob Dylan asks on “Why Try To Change Me Now,” a song about bad luck, bad decisions and the realization that at this point, things are hardly likely to improve. Shadows In The Night is his torch album. The template is the gloomier, late-night Sinatra, but where Sinatra wrapped his sadness in the dark velvet of Gordon Jenkins’ strings, or the elegance of Nelson Riddle’s soundscapes, Dylan’s is a stripped-down melancholy, with only the barest amount of embellishment. No orchestra, no piano, just a hint of drums, some horns here and there. It’s not a jazz album, even though the graphics are Blue Note-esque, and it’s not a nostalgic standards album with arrangements that evoke a long-gone era. Next year, it could qualify for a Grammy in the Best Traditional Pop album category because of repertoire, but it could as easily be slotted in Americana. Sinatra’s albums like Where Are You? felt like they were set in bars in the heart of Manhattan, like Jilly’s on West 52nd Street, but Shadows In The Night is more like a dimly-lit honky-tonk. Dylan’s voice is all smoke and sawdust, and there’s loneliness and regret in Donny Herron’s tearful steel guitar that’s Dylan’s partner throughout the set.

“Where Are You?,” “What’ll I Do?,” “I’m A Fool To Want You,” “The Night We Called It A Day” are as sad as songs can be, and these performances get at what most contemporary pop singers, especially guys, completely avoid: naked romantic mourning. There was no singer more masculine than Frank Sinatra, no one who swung with more cheerful arrogance, but as a self-described manic-depressive, his elation crashed hard, and on the unswinging albums he was unafraid to wallow. Where Are You?, with Jenkins, the album where he sang “The Night We Called It A Day” and a few other tunes that made it onto Shadows In The Night, is a sob story start to finish: “Lonely Town,” “There’s No You,” “Maybe You’ll Be There” and so forth. It was a tradition for men, in the pop, jazz and R&B worlds — and in country, needless to say — to portray themselves as not only bruised but beaten, to plead for reconciliation, to declare themselves hopelessly adrift.

We think of the ’40s and ’50s as rigid men-were-men decades, but the guys of my parents’ generation were such softies; the music they listened to was so sentimental. That was a dominant thread, sentimentality. “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” was Tommy Dorsey’s theme, for God’s sake (Sinatra did the song on his I Remember Tommy album), and the whole Big Band and post-Big Band eras were awash with male mushiness. Sinatra and his cronies gave regular guys the license to express hurt. Men could put on Only The Lonely, In The Wee Small Hours of The Morning, All Alone, Where Are You?, No One Cares (that’s some string of despair right there) and let Frank sit next to them and commiserate.

In a way, Dylan himself helped put the brakes on this sentimental journey. His early end-of-relationship songs — “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” — were kind of dismissive shrugs, and even later on, he didn’t dwell that much on love gone wrong. “Sooner or later one of us must know,” he sang, “that I really did try to get close to you.” His prior-to-Shadows “torch album,” Blood On The Tracks (it’s like a parallel title to the new one), is a break-up masterpiece, but hardly a consistently compassionate one. While Dylan was prepping Highway 61 Revisted, Sinatra was polishing off September of My Years, and that’s about as concrete an illustration of the 1965 Pop Divide as you can imagine: “Like A Rolling Stone” vs. “It Was A Very Good Year.” The new wave vs. the old guard. Sinatra wasn’t yet 50 years old when he cut (with Jenkins) his autumnal album filled with rueful looking-back, but 50 was different in ’65. Fifty was “getting on in years.”

Dylan is going to be 74 in May, nearly a quarter-century older than Sinatra was when he sang “How Old Am I?,” “Once Upon A Time” and “This Is All I Ask.” He told AARP’s magazine (how perfect) that he wanted to do an album of standards like this in the ’70s, after Desire, but Columbia put the kibosh on it, so he recorded Street Legal instead. Then came Slow Train Coming and the notorious Christian phase, and it took another few decades for him to get around to it. I listened to it last night in bed, at midnight, and I never thought I’d want to hear “Autumn Leaves” or “Some Enchanted Evening” again, but damned if those tracks didn’t nearly make me cry. They are, as Dylan says, not covered but uncovered. All the decorations they’ve been given over the years have been taken down. “Why Try To Change Me Now” has been done brilliantly by Fiona Apple — her live version from a Largo show is devastatingly great — but I’ve been listening to Dylan for most of my grown-up life and I got the biggest kick out of hearing him sing that opening line: “I’m sentimental so I walk in the rain/I’ve got some habits even I can’t explain.” Of course. Why can’t he be more conventional? Because then he wouldn’t be Bob Dylan.

american hustlers


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.