the geography of loneliness

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

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

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

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

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

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

it’s a cold cold world

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

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

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

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

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

high hopes and low expectations

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

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

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

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

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

song of inexperience

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

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

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

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

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

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

talkin’ (and talkin’ and talkin’) ’bout my generation

“To a twenty-two year old now, 1965 was like 1915 had been to her when she was starting out. It wasn’t like that, though, was it? She saw pictures of the Beatles and Twiggy everywhere. Nobody had wanted to think about 1915 in the 1960s, had they?”
— Nick Hornby, Funny Girl

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The new Nick Hornby novel traces the career of a fictional BBC sitcom star of the sixties, Sophie Straw, whose show Barbara (and Jim) becomes a sensation, and plunks her into the center of Swinging London. Straw is a vivid Hornby creation, like singer-songwriter Tucker Crowe in Juliet, Naked, and it’s tremendous fun to see her world intersect with the “real” mid-’60s (at one point, Keith Relf from The Yardbirds chats her up at a posh club). Right after I finished Funny Girl, I popped in a DVD of a 2014 ITV bio-pic called Cilla, about the actually-existing ’60s pop star Cilla Black (played charmingly by Sheridan Smith), and watched as she bopped around Liverpool with lads named Ringo and George, and eventually made it to London where she recorded at Abbey Road studios with George Martin and Burt Bacharach. Then I went to Amazon and downloaded the new biography of Brian Jones to my iPad. And played a few tracks from a new double-CD tribute to a songwriter named McCartney (he wrote some catchy tunes, it turns out).

I’m not sure what to make of all this. As Sophie Straw ponders a half-century after her dizzy initial period of U.K.-wide fame – Barbara (and Jim) is watched by upwards of 15 million people, nearly a third of the country’s population — what is with this continuing fascination with the culture of the mid-’60s? It is exactly as if in 1964 films and books were being made about Irene and Vernon Castle, there were tribute albums to Billy Murray, and new biographies about Mabel Normand or Dustin Farnum (you most likely have little idea whom I’m talking about, which is my point). In 1964, we did still know who Irving Berlin and Charlie Chaplin were, and W.C. Handy, but it’s not as though they were in the mainstream of pop culture the way the Beatles are today (LPs available in remastered Mono, a perfect holiday gift!), and I don’t imagine anyone thinks Cilla Black is on the same level as the Beatles. Still, ITV devoted nearly 2 1/2 hours to telling her story from 1962ish through 1968ish, and the show was a smashing ratings-grabber in England.

Why Cilla? Because she is a U.K. treasure, less for being a big pop star than for being a TV presenter for the last four-plus decades, hosting such shows that Americans have never seen as Blind Date and Surprise Surprise. OK, but that doesn’t make her rise to the charts any more compelling than anyone else’s (Lulu’s, or Sandie Shaw’s or certainly Dusty Springfield’s). If the Beatles weren’t her mates, if she hadn’t joined Brian Epstein’s roster of management clients — a lot of Cilla is about his tragic closeted life, giving the story tension that her own life barely provides — her pop career would be, at most, an episode in a multipart series about the Girls of the British Invasion. There is a bit of a conflict about whether she or Beryl Marsden, another Liverpool girl, will get a crack at Lennon & McCartney’s “Love of The Loved” and I was more interested in following Marsden’s story (although since the series is called Cilla, I knew that was unlikely). She was part of the group The Shotgun Express with Rod Stewart, Peter Green and Mick Fleetwood, and the all-girl group She Trinity, and made a bunch of records that are brighter than any of Cilla’s.

1964 doesn’t feel that distant for those of us who were in thrall to pop music then. We’re constantly reminded of that period. It’s not only The Beatles, although they loom over everything, including Funny Girl (it’s about British TV and comedy, but there’s no escaping their role in loosening England up) and Cilla and that new McCartney tribute, and I’m guessing the Brian Jones bio, since the Beatles and Stones are forever linked by history. Dylan’s ’60s vaults are inexhaustible (and here comes the 50th anniversary of Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited), The Kinks may or may not celebrate their 50th in brotherly fashion, The Zombies still tour. Hell, I’m working on an album featuring songs by the downtown NYC songwriters from the era (Ochs, Andersen, Sebastian, Dylan), so I’m part of the eternal-flame situation. And I sat through all of Cilla, and would probably do the same for Lulu or Sandie. It’s normal to cling to the songs you heard when you were in Junior High; my parents’ generation never stopped listening to the big bands. Yet it probably never occurred to them that their kids would want to buy a Tommy Dorsey boxed set, or watch a movie about, say, Jo Stafford. You do see pictures of Twiggy everywhere; everyone knows who she is. If you’d have asked me, in 1967, to name a famous model from 1917, not a clue.

“there was proximity, but no relating”

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Discovering the albums of Mike Nichols and Elaine May was like being introduced to a new comic language. Every beat and inflection, every phrase, stayed within the premise they established and then turned it a few unexpected degrees. There had never been a male-female comedy team like them: young and attractive (Ms. May was a knockout), urbane and cultured. The closest, I suppose, were Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca on Your Show of Shows, but I hadn’t seen them in their prime, and their specialty was parody and slapstick, broad strokes. Otherwise, who was there? Burns and Allen were perfection, but were always George and Gracie, like Lucy and Ricky, a married couple doing endless variations on a fixed relationship. Nichols and May, in their sketches (that’s such an inadequate word for what they created), were never Mike and Elaine. They were a doctor and nurse; a funeral home’s “grief lady” and a bereaved client; two people in bed, who had only met that night, talking about Bach and Nietzsche; or two teenagers on a date.

No one had so deftly threaded the comedy needle the way Nichols and May did. There are many Mike Nichols films that I like, and I’ve been wowed by plays and TV movies he directed (The Seagull, Angels In America, Death of A Salesman, The Real Thing, last year’s revival of Betrayal), but if he’d only been one half of the team of Nichols and May, he’d belong in any pantheon of American Comedy. They didn’t tell jokes, like all the older stand-ups on the television variety shows, or even like the other comedians making waves alongside them, Bob Newhart, Shelley Berman, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, whose material was delivered casually, conspiratorially. It was a whole new tone, hipper and more subtle. I was too young to catch them when they were becoming a sensation on TV, records and Broadway (1959-1961, a criminally short run), so I had to reel backwards to find the three LPs they made at their peak.

I did get to see them one time, in 1972 when they and other disbanded acts — Simon & Garfunkel, Peter, Paul & Mary — reunited at Madison Square Garden to support George McGovern’s bid for the Presidency. For me, they were the draw; the musical acts were fine, as I recall, the usual crowd-rousing tunes, but really, Simon and Garfunkel and PP&M hadn’t been separated for all that long, and honestly, I don’t like any of their albums as much as I love Improvisations To Music. At least I never played them as often. Everything about how Nichols and May interacted had an undercurrent of quietly subversive playfulness. That’s why, as some observers point out in the PBS American Masters program on them, Take Two, they could get away with material that, for the early ’60s, was pretty daring. “Back To Bach,” the piece with the post-coital conversation between virtual strangers, starts off as though it could simply be two people chatting at a cocktail party, and then — after about 2 1/2 minutes — Nichols asks May if she’d move over a little because he’s falling off the bed. That information is simply dropped in. Some more chatter, and he asks if she wants a pillow. And it’s all so beautifully calibrated.

“We’d like to say a few words about adultery,” Nichols announced in their Broadway hit An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May. “It’s coming back.” They brought adult sexiness to comedy, and neurosis, and the spark of a revolution. In a classic TV moment at the Emmy Awards, May comes out to present an award for achievement in mediocrity, and Nichols accepts it gleefully as a television executive who always takes the sponsors’ suggestions, never dares air anything remotely controversial or offensive, never gets any letters of complaint (or praise, for that matter). This on stage in a theater filled with people who were making television shows during the medium’s most bland era, the late ’50s-early ’60s. Still, they were adored, and rightly so. Mike Nichols has been in my cultural life for as long as I can recall, and provided a generous number of memorable nights in the theater, but nothing he did has made me laugh as hard and as long as those old recordings and clips of Nichols and May.

women alone with the blues

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Peggy Lee and Aretha Franklin made poor choices, in men, in wardrobes, sometimes even in music. They were demanding, competitive and often, in romantic matters, delusional. Miss Peggy Lee and The Queen of Soul guarded their reputations fiercely, struggled with weight issues, stumbled and recovered numerous times and created bodies of work that are the apex of pop, soul, jazz and gospel singing, Lee in a voice barely above a murmur, Franklin with a shout that could make walls crumble. Each sang as though haunted by something ungraspable, some primal loss or pain, and two new biographies, named after two iconic records — James Gavin’s Is That All There Is?: The Strange Life of Peggy Lee and David Ritz’s Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin — dig to find the sources of their anguish. The books talk to each other at times: Franklin was a big fan of Lee’s, and Lee recorded one of Franklin’s biggest hits, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”; both women recorded with Quincy Jones; John Hammond, who brought Aretha to Columbia, worked with Peggy’s first employer, Benny Goodman, and found Lee’s singing unimpressive. They both did great versions of “Just For A Thrill” and “Crazy He Calls Me,” and they even shared a stage on at least one occasion, paying tribute to Duke Ellington alongside Sarah Vaughan and Roberta Flack, forming a fleeting girl-group for the ages.

Lee is missing from Franklin’s new diva-classics album, which is a shame, because who wouldn’t want to hear Aretha talk-sing “Is That All There Is?” Or do a crisp, snapping version of “Fever”? Or work Leiber & Stoller’s “I’m A Woman” into her take on “I’m Every Woman”? Lee was the hippest: she was early in introducing the songs of Ray Charles to her audiences at joints like Basin Street East, flipped effortlessly from big band swing with Goodman to jivey Capitol numbers like “Yeah Yeah Yeah” to boudoir-jazz on the Decca Black Coffee album, and spotted Randy Newman as a promising writer-arranger. She also wrote the songs and provided the voices for characters in Disney’s Lady and The Tramp, the first movie I ever saw in a theater, and one of the most important rom-coms of the 1950s. “He’s A Tramp,” a slinky number sung by a dog named Peg, is like a prototype of all the girl-group songs about the appeal of the bad boy.

Gavin mentions a few times that Lee’s favorite song was “The Folks Who Live On The Hill,” a sentimental, idealized vision of domesticity (and a forerunner to Randy Newman’s more cynical “Love Story,” another song she cut) that she, and Franklin, never came close to in real life. Her recording of it is the saddest imaginable, set up by a long Nelson Riddle introduction; it’s the Richard Yates Revolutionary Road version, something not quite centered. Is That All There Is? and Respect are packed tales of the wrong guys: alcoholics, manipulators, married men, school-girl-level crushes. There are famous bedmates (Sinatra in Lee’s case, possibly Sam Cooke in Franklin’s), and series of affairs, but nothing stuck. And although they made some records that are filled with joy (literally, like Lee’s Jump For Joy with Riddle) and lust and playfulness, they were women who ached and made their ache palpable. Lee’s album If You Go, with Quincy Jones — “magnificent misty-eyed performances of beautiful love songs” — is classic torching: “Say It Isn’t So,” “Here’s That Rainy Day,” “I Wish I Didn’t Love You So,” “I Get Along Without You Very Well”…it’s a female Only The Lonely.

They pined for men that got away, drank too much, wanted film careers that eluded them (Lee did make an Oscar-nominated impression in Jack Webb’s Pete Kelly’s Blues, but never followed it up), treated their staff badly, weren’t good at business. But you listen to those first Aretha albums on Atlantic (and when are the mono versions going to be made available?), and even some of the earlier Columbia sides, and they still have the power to knock you over. What was this? It wasn’t as though there weren’t rafters-rattling R&B singers before her, but this was another dimension. Of course she never topped them; no one could have. Ritz makes a case for 1976’s Sparkle as the last major Atlantic moment, and I like that album, but ’67-’72, up to Spirit In The Dark, Live At Fillmore West and Amazing Grace was the pinnacle.

She’s angry about Respect, as anyone who knows anything about her might have guessed. She says it’s a litany of lies. And from her view atop Mt. Aretha, I’m sure it looks that way: this is not a way to treat a Queen. Peggy Lee, if she were alive, would probably find Gavin’s elegantly written, perceptive portrait unrecognizable as well. Their lives were messy as hell. The music, that’s another story.

the new record company turns 40

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On page 3 of the November 23, 1974, issue of Billboard magazine, two articles ran together in the left column. The headlines: “Davis Bows Arista Label In Chicago” and “Rock, Jazz Seen For Arista Label.” Skip a bit through the magazine, past the ads for Perry Como’s holiday single, a live Mott The Hoople LP, Charlie Rich’s new one (The Silver Fox), and one for the single from the Campbell-Webb Reunion I just riffed on, and you’ll come across a multi-page advertisement. “The New Record Company,” Arista calls itself, announcing its executive staff with headshots and capsule resumes, and a slate of exciting upcoming releases, including Melanie, Gil Scott-Heron, Tony Orlando and Dawn, Al Wilson, Suzi Quatro, Gryphon, Terry Jacks, Melissa Manchester, The Fifth Dimension, Barry Manilow, Lou Rawls, Peter Nero, The First Choice, Eric Andersen, Anthony Braxton, The Brecker Brothers, Ron Dante, Headhunters, Garland Jeffries [sic], The Outlaws and Tom Sullivan.

I run that entire list not because its marquee power is so awesome, but because anyone betting on Clive Davis’ big adventure would have been making quite the leap of faith. When Melanie takes top billing, and a rock roster consists of Gryphon and the then-unknown Outlaws (and Suzi, who’s still unheralded for being a badass rock chick), and fingers are crossed for some chart action for Terry Jacks and Peter Nero, you might want to wait a while before springing for a big Billboard spread. But Clive Davis had a vision for this enterprise, Gryphon be damned. By the time the ad ran, Manilow’s “Mandy” was in full zoom up to #1, but that could have been some kind of fluke (it wasn’t), and most of the rest of the roster held over from Bell Records didn’t look all that packed with potential.

Over the following months, these were some of the singles released by Arista: a disco version of Goffin & King’s “Oh No Not My Baby” by De Blanc, Robbie Benson’s “A Rock and Roll Song” and The Stanky Brown Group’s “Rock ‘N’ Rollin’ Star” (neither single rocked all that much), U.K. imports Quatro and The Glitter Band, Peter Nero’s version of the theme from the soft-core hit Emmanuelle, non-hits by The Fifth Dimension and Tony Orlando And Dawn (“Little Heads In Bunkbeds/Gimme A Good Little Mammy Song”). Of that very early batch, my favorite by some margin is the Arista debut by Linda Lewis, “(Remember The Days Of) The Old Schoolyard,” written by Cat Stevens. For more, you could look here: http://www.45cat.com/label/arista-us

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Arista gave me most of my professional — and not a small portion of my personal — life. I got there just as Clive was making plans to celebrate the Arista’s 3rd Anniversary, and since I was doing all of the editorial work for the label, I got to research and write about those 1000 days in Arista history. Arista was where I met some of my best friends, and my ex-wife, and where I had the notion — which Clive was naturally skeptical of — that I might be pretty good at doing A&R, although I had scant real understanding of what that might mean. I spent all of my thirties there, working at a record company at a time when record companies were fun, creative and lucrative places to work. I found a song for half of The Monkees to record, signed a couple of successful artists, found some songs to help keep the Arista machine humming.

As Arista approaches its 40th Anniversary, I flip through the music in my head like Tony in the last scene of The Sopranos, going through the selections on the diner jukebox. What strikes me about Arista is that its success was never tethered to anything circling around in the atmosphere. Disco records were part of the mix, but it wasn’t a dance-oriented label. Clive signed Patti Smith and Lou Reed, but none of the other east coast downtown bands. Say what you will about Manilow, you can’t say that he was a safe commercial bet, or that he was representative of anything else in the musical zeitgeist. Aretha was floundering at Atlantic, Dionne at Warners, The Kinks at RCA, and they bounced back. There was no one like Whitney until there was Whitney, so then everyone had to go look for the Next Whitney, and good luck with that. As for Kenny G., sometimes the world is a mysterious place.

When I arrived, the label was setting up The Dwight Twilley Band, trying to sign Graham Parker and, through Stiff, Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe for the U.S. (and The Sex Pistols). There was a West Coast band with Gregg Sutton called The Pets (originally Damaged Pets), Clive had re-signed Donovan, The Alpha Band’s debut was imminent, and there was a new group from Philadelphia called Baby Grand. And The Grateful Dead were back in the groove. Even Tony Joe White was on the label, and Rick Danko from The Band. Patti was getting Easter ready. I felt as though this could be a fun ride for a while, as I planned out what my real career might be. I jumped on the Arista train at the right time (this was the company that released Horses, and that was enough incentive for me, along with a bi-weekly paycheck), and held on for quite a while. Even though it exists now only as catalog in the vast Sony vault, Arista made its mark. Happy 40th.

you might as well smile

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Forty years ago this month, in the sweet aftermath of Nixon’s resignation, I was working part-time at a left-wing political organization, getting my M.A. in Cinema Studies (meaning: watching and writing about and talking about movies), and beginning to carve out a semi-living as a person who had opinions about music and film and could organize those opinions into sentences. The LPs would come to the door, and I’d call up an editor if I felt like I had something to say about one of them. No one else at the alternative weekly had the slightest interest in reviewing the new Glen Campbell album, a batch of songs mostly written by Jimmy Webb called Reunion, so I jumped on it. My editor seemed confused by my eagerness, and to make the request sexier, I pitched it as part of a Middle of the Road round-up along with the then-new album by Barbra Streisand (a ridiculous thing called ButterFly, produced by her boyfriend Jon Peters and including covers of Bob Marley, David Bowie and Paul Anka songs, along with the silliest version of “Let The Good Times Roll” you ever heard) and one other MOR artist (John Denver, maybe? Back Home Again?). He still didn’t think anyone would care.

Reunion instantly became one of my favorite albums, and it still is. A lot of people I know have seen the new Campbell documentary I’ll Be Me this week, and he’s been on my mind, so I went to my computer to play the album and it was gone. A couple of months ago, my iMac collapsed, and my external back-up failed, and just like that, more than half of my stored music library vanished into the nowheresphere, but the thing is, I don’t know what’s missing until I look for it. Not having Reunion at my literal fingertips (how spoiled have I become?) was like a crisis, until I realized that the original vinyl copy I reviewed in 1974 was still in my collection, and I could play that same record, and it would sound better anyway.

The Campbell-Webb partnership was, everyone knows, one of those blessed unions. Johnny Rivers might have gotten to Webb, and specifically “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” first, but after Campbell had the breakthrough “Phoenix” cover, Webb thought he’d write him another song with a city in the title and came up with “Wichita Lineman,” every second of which is beyond sublime, and then there were “Galveston,” “Honey Come Back,’ “Where’s The Playground, Susie.” By ’74, however, both Campbell and Webb were in a slump that Reunion did nothing to snap, and whenever anyone talks about what they did together, it’s usually about those singles from ’67-’69.

Reunion starts with a Lowell George song, but Webb takes over on track two and holds on for the rest of the album (except for one lovely run-on sentence of a song by Susan Webb, “About The Ocean”). “Just This One Time” is Webb’s shot at a big Righteous Brothers-ish ballad, and it’s a crushing epic: it sounds like Hal Blaine on drums, but it might be Jim Gordon, and the first two beats come slapping in after a short piano intro, and then Glen; “I gotta try just one more time to help you believe me.” The strings climb and climb along with Campbell, who’s really going for it:

“My life’s never been everything that I wanted it to be
But with you I could change this bad luck
With you I could hold my head up

It floored me the first time I heard it, and anyone who underrates Campbell as a singer simply has to listen to the first 90 seconds of this song to shut the hell up. It’s such a clean, American voice, a kind of prairie soulfulness with so much power and so much reserve that it never even flirts with schmaltz. It just is. And that’s so hard to pull off. Karen Carpenter had it; Streisand never did: she has to show off, like she’s going for her vocal merit badge every time. Reviewing ButterFly and Reunion at the same time was my idea, I admit, two adult-pop albums, but it was insane. It made her look like she was flailing for help, while he planted his feet and simply wrecked you.

There’s a moment on “You Might As Well Smile” that always, always makes me tear up. Near the end of the opening verse, Webb throws Campbell a curveball (his melodies can be as tricky to navigate as Bacharach’s), “But now the time it grows shorter for the speeches/Just let me leave you with a line/It might help you pass the time sometime/You might as well smile…” And I’m gone. That is a fucking hard line to sing, and Webb still isn’t finished running it out, building to a quadruple rhyme that you think is the end of the chorus and he still isn’t finished, until he wraps it up with “shine it on me.” And the song is only half over:

“We were looking in the mirror at the time/I got confused and I thought your eyes were mine.”

Songwriters kill for a line like that.

Reunion is filled with beautiful songs. “The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress” you know, and maybe “It’s A Sin (When You Love Somebody). And Linda Ronstadt, (whose Heart Like A Wheel came out a month after Reunion on the same label), later picked up on “I Keep It Hid.” Those songs have all been in more than capable hands, but I discovered them through Campbell, and they’re stuck in my head in this specific context. If there’s a more heartbreaking song about bottling up your emotions, pining for an old girlfriend, shutting yourself off, than “I Keep It Hid,” I probably don’t want to know about it. Because finding the Reunion vinyl, revisiting it now, with all the memories attached to it, and Campbell fading away, I’m already a mess.

gotta dance to keep from crying

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There’s a funny chapter in Nick Hornby’s 2009 novel Juliet, Naked, where two U.K. Northern Soul enthusiasts try to explain the music that they’re so devoted to. For the faithful, it’s simply assumed that Major Lance and Barbara Mason take precedence over Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin, Dobie Gray’s “Out On The Floor” rules, and that while on the surface — to the uninitiated — Northern Soul might resemble Tamla-Motown pop-R&B, there’s a crucial difference. “Most Tamla’s too famous, see?…Not rare enough. It’s got to be rare.” Annie, who’s listened to this explanation, concludes that these Northern Soul guys are like her boyfriend, who’s obsessed with a reclusive American singer-songwriter. “There was the same need for obscurity,” she thinks, “the same suspicion that if a piece of music had reached a large number of people, it had somehow been drained of its worth.” Among certain record collectors of any stripe — connoisseurs of doo-wop or punk or be-bop or garage rock — that’s an article of faith: popularity is suspect.

Watching the movie Northern Soul — the title makes it seem like another music documentary, like Muscle Shoals or The Wrecking Crew, but it’s not — I kept holding Shazam up to the TV screen to find out what was playing. The music keeps jumping at you, vibrant, upbeat singles that drive the film along, like “Just Say You’re Wanted (And Needed)” by Gwen Owens, “Suspicion” by The Originals, “Stick By Me Baby” by The Salvadores. There is some Motown, but not the Motown most people might recognize: Edwin Starr’s “Time” on Gordy, Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons’ “The Night” on Mowest, “This Love Starved Heart of Mine” by Marvin Gaye. It’s an insular world, defined by who can find a record no one else knows about, spin it at an all-nighter, and get the crowd moving. DJ’s would tape white labels over 45’s so no one else could seek out the record and play it at a competing club. That was the point, exclusivity, becoming a part of a secret society, and Elaine Constantine’s film captures the thrill of not only the music itself (you might want to jump over to Amazon right now and grab the expanded soundtrack album, 54 tracks you probably don’t already own for $8.99) but being connected to other people who share this peculiar madness.

For these working-class kids in small town England, Northern Soul gives them purpose. In most films like this, they’d want to form bands, like The Commitments, but all they want to do is dig out rare 45’s from America and play them for other people to dance to. It’s like if the boys in Saturday Night Fever wanted to be become DJ’s, or remixers. In Saturday Night Fever, which takes place only a few years after Northern Soul, no one talks about the music itself, the artists, the labels, what the songs are saying (mostly what they’re saying is “You should be dancing”). There’s a lot of dancing in this movie also, and it provides the same kind of release, but it feels more emotional, more joyful, even though the songs are almost all about pain: “If This Is Love (I’d Rather be Lonely),” “Tear Stained Face,” “I Gotta Find Me Somebody,” “Crying Over You.” The records themselves matter to these kids. You see a lot of 45’s in the film, on the correct labels, and the soundtrack album makes a point of saying these are 7” mixes. It wasn’t clear whether Tony Manero owned a record player, or even knew who The Bee Gees were. He and his friends showed zero curiosity about the music Monti Rock was playing for them.

I really can’t explain Northern Soul, the genre, with any more precision than the characters in Juliet, Naked, even though I’ve bought quite a few compilations of records that were played at clubs like Wigan Casino and The Twisted Wheel. It includes some Cameo-Parkway (again, not the obvious hits), some pop artists like Len Barry and Paul Anka (but only one or two tracks); I’ve seen some Ramsey Lewis turn up, but he could be considered Mod Jazz also, and sometimes there seems to be a slight overlap between Northern Soul and Belgian Popcorn, and R&B Beach Music from the U.S. You might also run into Lada Edmunds Jr. or Joey Heatherton on a NS CD, rubbing shoulders with Shirley Ellis (“Soul Time,” not “The Name Game”) and Reparata & The Delrons.

When you’re young, taste defines you, and this movie gets at how that all works: one kid initiates another, a tribe forms, you want to go where the music’s playing. It helps, in this case, that the music is so upbeat and, yeah, mostly so unfamiliar. It’s like you’ve been dropped into an alternate world where “Soul Time,” a record that crept into the lower half of the top 100 in early 1967, is as much of an anthem as “Dancing In The Street,” where Luther Ingram’s “Exus Trek” is a classic dance record. I’d never heard of Lou Pride before, or his 1972 song “I’m Com’un Home In The Morn’un,” or the Suemi label the 45 was released on, and now that it’s in my music library, it might not be that cool anymore, but too bad. You can’t paste a mysterious white label over everything and keep it your secret.