I’m not sure I grasp why Zooey Deschanel is such a divisive cultural presence. Is it the dresses, which my limited fashion acumen leads me to think are best described as “frocks” (that’s a thing, right?), or the girlishness (she likes to bat those blue eyes, and seems to love being lifted in the air)? What is there to dislike? She’s funny on The New Girl, her comedic timing and line-readings getting more sharp and eccentric from episode to episode, and her She & Him music with M. Ward has locked into a breezy old-school-pop groove that you would think would be hard to resist, a palate of Brill Building and British Invasion colors and easy-going, romantic wistfulness. Maybe people are convinced that it’s all an act, and what if it is? (It doesn’t appear to be, but there’s a skepticism about the butterflies-and-rainbows vibe.)
If Zooey is a character, she’s a character of her own sensibility and imagination, drawing on the more pining-away aspect of the girl group sound (there’s a Jeff Barry-Ellie Greenwich song, “Baby,” on the new S&H album, Volume 3), a lack of irony and cynicism, an open-hearted embrace of pop tropes. The video for “I Could’ve Been Your Girl” is a a cliche — she’s a waitress in a coffee shop fantasizing about a customer, and the dance routine is Anna Karina in Band of Outsiders meets Ann-Margret in Bye Bye Birdie — with a visual nod to her own sitcom, but it’s so engaging and self-aware. She’s playing “Zooey” to the hilt, going straight to a place that she must know isn’t universally adored.
Even though M. Ward doesn’t contribute substantially as a vocalist, She & Him does have a connection to the wave of boy-girl harmony sunshine folk-pop that took hold in a big way after the resounding success of The Mamas and The Papas; it’s a genre I’ve been digging into lately: Spanky & Our Gang, The Sugar Shoppe, The Deep Six, The Pleasure Fair (produced by pre-Bread David Gates), Janey & Dennis, Smokey & His Sister, The Eighth Day, The Sunshine Company. You have to be very careful about how exhaustively you want to go down this path: stray too far, and you’re into the realm of the kids from The Brady Bunch, and that’s somewhere you want to steer clear of. But if you stumble across some selected tracks from We Five (who actually preceded the M’s & P’s), The Partridge Family, The Sandpipers, Roger Nichols & The Small Circle of Friends and The Cowsills, you can slide a few into a playlist and stroll along easy street. It’s isn’t hard to imagine Zooey & Matt doing the sweetly bouncy Van Dyke Parks west coast anthem “Come To The Sunshine,” cut by The Pleasure Fair and the (all-guy) Harpers Bizarre.
She & Him toss petals of that genre into their potpourri, but their sound isn’t cloying-sweet like the more pillowy examples of the genre (The Sugar Shoppe, you won’t be shocked to learn, can make your teeth ache, and The Deep Six churn “Paint It Black” into cotton candy, somehow). First off, Zooey’s vocals aren’t simply pretty; they have a plaintive throatiness, and she often sings as though she’s just woken up and is still a bit foggy. And she’s backed up by tracks that sometimes have clamor and tension (big Brian Wilson influence on things like “I’ve Got Your Number, Son” and “Never Wanted Your Love”), and other times give her plenty of room to do her broken-heart bit (“Shadow of Love”). “Sunday Girl” might be close to karaoke, but if you’ve seen Zooey sing “Sugar Town” in (500) Days of Summer, you know that’s not necessarily a not-cool thing.
I may have lied a little earlier: I understand what bugs some people about the whole idea of Zooey Deschanel, but I think what they’re responding to is a paper-doll cut-out notion of what she is as an actress, performer, personality. And much as I get a kick out of The New Girl, I might’ve been more jazzed if her idea of doing an HBO series based on the life and exploits of ultra-groupie Pamela Des Barres had gotten on the air. No matter. Summer means fun, right? Volume 3 is a summer album, and I’ll be in Central Park in July when She & Him are out there spinning their music as the sun sets.
Like “Dancing In The Streets,” like “Twistin’ The Night Away,” like almost every let’s-do-the-latest-dance let’s-go-to-the-hippest-place song you could name, “Going To A Go-Go” is about inclusion (everyone can join in) and about exclusivity (you have to know the steps, you have to find the joint). In this case, it’s about a literal club, but also about a “club,” a group of people you want to be a part of. It’s a definitive, and defining record, a call to action: Come on, it says. There are no rules. No dress code or velvet rope. “Most every taxi that you flag is going to a go-go.” You don’t even have to tell the cab driver where you’re going; he’s already on his way there.
Smokey is telling us where we need to go to be part of the scene, to be, as another record from that moment in time says, in with the “in” crowd (the “in” is in quotes in the song’s title). The drums and bass that introduce the song are like a march toward ecstasy, a signal to follow. How canny of Smokey, always a shrewd songwriter, to tap into what was becoming a catch-all youthquake phrase: “a go-go.” It was everywhere you turned. In 1964, there was Johnny Rivers At The Whisky A Go-Go, followed by his Here We Go-Go Again. There was the Cafe A Go-Go in New York City, the Club A Go-Go where The Animals got their start in Newcastle, England. There was a segment on the show Hullaballoo called “Hullaballoo A Go-Go,” where a club was replicated on set, and Lada Edmunds Jr danced in a cage above the artists. Dobie Gray followed up “The ‘In’ Crowd” with “See You At The ‘Go-Go’.” Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs did “Pharaoh A Go-Go,” Gary Lewis & The Playboys did “Little Miss Go-Go.” Smokey even co-wrote a song for Stevie Wonder, “At The Go-Go” (and short-term Motown artist Barbara McNair sang “Baby A Go-Go”). Film scores used it (Our Man Flint’s “Galaxy A Go-Go”). Charlie Rich sang about a place called “Tears A Go-Go,” and Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine bashed out “Drums A Go-Go.”
(And, a bit later on, The Supremes would have their first-ever #1 album with The Supremes A Go-Go.)
“Going To A Go-Go,” the song, was the last of a four-single streak that broke a slump. The Miracles — that’s how they were billed until 1964 — hadn’t had a big crossover single since the summer of ’63, when the novelty dance tune “Mickey’s Monkey” went to #8 on the Billboard pop chart. A string of singles over nearly two years failed to crack the top 20, until “Ooo Baby Baby” appeared in early ’65, followed by “The Tracks of My Tears,” “My Girl Has Gone,” and “Going To A Go-Go,” the four top 20 hits that form the creative spine of Going To A Go-Go, the album.
All you need to hear are those first few notes on the guitar, the notes played by Marv Tarplin, on “The Tracks Of My Tears.” It is a record so perfect, due to Smokey Robinson’s ingenious and heartfelt lyric (starting with that title, which is pure songwriting genius), and Smokey’s vocal and production, but also in no small way due to how Tarplin sets it all up with the voice of his guitar. You couldn’t improve upon it, and few foolhardy enough to cover the song have tried to find an alternate route into its narrative. He provides the — if you will — track for Smokey to follow. Even without words, its beauty is intact. As craft, as emotion, there are a handful of pop records as effective as “The Tracks of My Tears.”
When “The Tracks of My Tears” was on the charts, here are some of the other singles that were vying for the attention of Young America: The Beatles’ “Help,” The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” The Beach Boys’ “California Girls,” Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody,” Wilson Pickett’s “In The Midnight Hour,” and new singles by two Motown artists, The Supremes and The Four Tops. Also scattered around the chart in that summer of ’65: The Animals, James Brown, Roy Orbison, The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Kinks, The Byrds, Roy Orbison. It was the Perfect Moment, a collision of endless inspiration, an all-embracing philosophy of what pop music meant and what it could encompass, and Smokey Robinson and The Miracles were right at the center of it.
It was Motown’s plan to push Smokey into the spotlight. Earlier in 1965, the label released The Temptations Sing Smokey, on which Robinson’s photo ran alongside the group’s on the cover, unprecedented billing. All the songs on the LP were written and produced by Smokey, making it, in all likelihood, the first R&B tribute album to a songwriter. And Berry Gordy’s liner notes rhapsodized about the album’s behind-the-scenes auteur, while The Temptations are given relatively brief mention (“truly nice guys, outstanding performers and creative artists”). The year before, at the end of ’64, the group, now renamed Smokey Robinson and The Miracles (before Diana Ross was similarly “promoted” in The Supremes), was one of three Motown acts appearing in the concert film The T.A.M.I. Show.
Everyone talks — and rightly so — about the eruptive, dazzling performance by James Brown on that stage in Santa Monica, but The Miracles put on quite a display as well, more than holding their own as what I suppose we’d have to call one of Brown’s opening acts, doing “That’s What Love Is Made Of” and “You Really Got A Hold On Me,” and closing with some snazzy choreographed footwork on “Mickey’s Monkey.” The group may have been in a relative dry spell during 1964, and, let’s face it, cracking playlists in that year of Beatlemania was an uphill battle for many domestic artists, but Smokey might have taken some consolation in the fact that The Beatles had put “You Really Got A Hold On Me” on their U.K. album With The Beatles (in the U.S., it appeared on The Beatles’ Second Album).
Although The Miracles couldn’t buck the initial British tide, Smokey was able to put together a couple of hits for fellow Motown artists The Temptations: “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” smack in the middle of The Beatles’ wild surge (February ’64), and “My Girl” (#1). Soon after “My Girl” reached the number one spot, Smokey returned there with Mary Wells’s “My Guy.”
Going To A Go-Go is a transitional Motown album: It’s a product of the label’s factory, and at the same time, it’s a personal statement, like a movie made inside the studio system that has the creative stamp of its director. For the first time on record, it was “Smokey Robinson and The Miracles”; with the exception of one song, it was completely produced and (co-)written by Robinson, who also was the group’s lead singer. It was one of the first Motown albums to be more than simply one or two hit singles plus obvious filler; the “album cuts” (“A Fork In The Road,” From Head To Toe” — which was later done by Elvis Costello — “Choosey Beggar”) are on par with the four hit singles. There are no covers of other Motown hits, or hits from outside the Motown universe. It’s as self-contained as the Motown albums that would be released in the early ’70s by Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, except the subject is, almost exclusively, love. At the time this album was released, the only comparable figure in contemporary R&B was Curtis Mayfield with The Impressions.
The album spent 40 weeks on the Billboard chart. There’s no way to say with any precision how many copies it sold, because Motown was not a member of the R.I.A.A. at the time, and sales weren’t certified; you had to take Berry Gordy’s word for how well the company’s records did. But we can trace its trajectory on the album chart, from its inauspicious debut at #137 in November 1965, to its New Year vault to #35 (right under the similarly-titled The Ventures A Go-Go) to brushing the top 10 in February (where it sat alongside another album largely written and produced by Smokey, Temptin’ Temptations, to sharing the top 10 with Rubber Soul, and staying in the top 20 for a total of 15 weeks before starting a steady, long decline.
That’s not how non-Greatest Hits albums on Motown generally performed in the mid-’60s. No Four Tops album until ’67 (Reach Out) had that kind of chart impact. Marvin Gaye didn’t have a top 10 album until 1971. Martha & The Vandellas and The Marvelettes never did, in their entire careers, and Stevie Wonder went from his #1 live album in 1963 (rocketed by his hit “Fingertips- Pt 2”) until almost a decade later, in 1972, without an album scraping the top 20. Except for the phenomenon that was The Supremes, Motown was primarily a 45 RPM label. Together, Going To A Go-Go and Temptin’ Temptations changed the game, spending a collective 87 weeks on the album chart (the next Temptations album, Gettin’ Ready, also largely a Smokey affair, did nearly as well).
What Smokey did, on this most sublime of albums — it’s Motown’s Rubber Soul/Pet Sounds — was pull it all together as writer, producer, and singer: the craft and efficiency of Hitsville U.S.A., the harmonic and melodic influence of doo wop, the formal perfection of songs from Tin Pan Alley and The Brill Building, the rhythmic pulse that stretched into the dance music of the ’70s, a sound that was a bridge between the early R&B of Clyde McPhatter and Sam Cooke and the soul that would take hold with Aretha and Otis (both of whom recorded Smokey’s songs). And he did this in the midst of an amazing pop renaissance, holding his own against Lennon & McCartney, Bacharach & David, Brian Wilson, The Stones (later on, they did their own version of “Going To A Go-Go”), and even Bob Dylan, who around the time that Going To A Go-Go came out, was quoted as calling Smokey Robinson “America’s greatest poet.” Dylan later backtracked on that, but that doesn’t mean wasn’t true.
When Leonard Cohen sings the line “I was born with the gift of a golden voice” (from “Tower Of Song”) in concert, it gets a chuckle from the audience, even though it’s true: not all gold is polished and shiny, after all, and when it comes to voices, what you should want is character and texture, not that you’d know that from watching singing competitions on television, where interpretation is a foreign term and singing is scored on a degree-of-difficulty scale and it’s about the notes and not the words. There’ve been times over the course of his career when Tom Jones went overboard with the beltiness, used his powerful vocal chords like they were muscles to flex, and that’s one reason why when you say “Tom Jones” you have to qualify it with reams of footnotes. Which Tom Jones?
He’s been recording for more than 50 years, starting out with a bunch of pre-Mersey Beat U.K. pop singles with the noted pop eccentric Joe Meek, and he’s had more musical identities than anyone except maybe Bobby Darin: R&B shouter, country crooner, bluesy dude, Vegas headliner, singer of Paul Anka and Bacharach & David pop songs. He’s recorded snappy versions of Prince and Arctic Monkeys tunes, hosted a TV variety show, and is as comfortable singing “Stagger Lee” and “Wichita Lineman” as he is doing histrionic schlock like “Delilah,” where he essentially maps out a confession to an O.J.-ish murder. And who could possibly make an excuse for the panderingly misogynistic Anka opus “She’s A Lady,” where he sweetly says that he “never would abuse her” (nice of him), while listing among her sterling qualities that she always knows her place, is skilled at pleasing him, and can take what he dishes out.
There is that voice, though: he’s like the pop Richard Burton, a singer of such masculine authority and drama that he brings gravitas to a Bond theme (“Thunderball”), elevates trivia like “Help Yourself” and “Promise Her Anything” and “What A Party,” and, as clips from his television series prove, could stand toe-to-toe and tonsils-to-tonsils with singers as different as Dusty Springfield and Janis Joplin. He could have been one of the premier blue-eyed soul singers if he’d stayed on the “It’s Not Unusual” path, but he’s spent almost a half-century zigging and zagging from one genre to another, mounting the occasional “comeback” (when someone has reached Jones’s age, every new album has to be touted as a “comeback” of some sort, to the point where that becomes completely meaningless, except as a media hook: he hasn’t been away for very long like forever; even if you don’t count those early Meek recordings, he’s made around forty full-length albums, five in this century, on five different labels). This week he released a new one, Spirit In The Room, produced by Ethan Johns, who also commandeered the last good one, 2010’s Praise & Blame.
Spirit In The Room opens with Cohen’s “Tower of Song,” which means Jones gets to sing that “golden voice” line, and I suppose that’s as solid a reason as any why Johns picked that particular Cohen song; I might have opted for “Everybody Knows” or “I’m Your Man,” but I get the point, and it’s a nice way to kick off an album that’s so rich in repertoire. These are towering writers he’s tackling, Dylan, Waits, Cohen, McCartney. Simon, Richard Thompson, Mickey Newbury, with a sneakily new alt-country track by the exceptional outfit The Low Anthem, and detours to Blind Willie Johnson and Odetta. When you have material like Thompson’s “Dimming Of The Day” and Dylan’s recent, and great, “When The Deal Goes Down,” you’re halfway home, and Jones (Sir Thomas John Woodward, to be precise) brings a burnished brand of gold to the songs; it’s all in all some of the most restrained music he’s ever made: he doesn’t even go as far with “I Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” as he would have if he’d cut it in the ‘60s, although you can go ahead and superimpose 1967 model T.J. over the song if you like (that would have made it a track on the Green, Green Grass of Home album, where it would have nestled comfortably alongside the other Mickey Newbury songs, “Funny Familiar Forgotten Feelings” and “(I Wish I Could) Say No To You”).
When you can sing like Tom Jones, and there’s little that’s out of reach (he can sing “Big Boss Man,” and “I Who Have Nothing,” and “If You Go Away” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You”…), it becomes all about choices, like actors as brilliant as Burton (or, let’s say DeNiro or Pacino) whose filmographies are filled with misjudgments that are inexplicable alongside the projects that truly deserved them. So if Jones doesn’t get taken as seriously as he should — and you can blame things like the Anka song, and the underwear-tossing ritual, and a lot of lousy records in the ‘70s (ok, it was the ‘70s: a lot of singers screwed up in that decade, give him a break) — you can say that he squandered his talent, and maybe he did: no one forced him to record “Love Is On The Radio.” But I know that when “It’s Not Unusual” came out in 1965, it was a blast of confidence and sexuality, a man’s voice with swagger. He’s not strutting his stuff as blatantly on Spirit In The Room, and who would want to hear an almost 73-year old guy do that? But he was born with the gift of a golden voice, and the power is still there, only more reflective, quieter. I assume, however, that when he steps on stage, undergarments are still flung in his direction.
Those country guys, they know what disappointments they are to their mothers, and they aren’t timid about expressing remorse. Like Johnny Paycheck’s “I’m The Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised,” where he commits one transgression after another, stealing cars, robbing liquor stores, a whole array of crimes, but does he whine to a shrink about how his upbringing turned him bad? Nope, all he thinks about is being back home with mama and hearing her sing old gospel songs. One of the songs Johnny Cash sang to the guys at Folsom Prison was “Send A Picture of Mother,” where a prisoner asks a fellow inmate who’s being sprung to, well, it’s right there in the title, but you wonder why he couldn’t just write to his mother and ask her to put a snapshot in the mail.
And there’s the quintessential I-fucked-up country song, “Mama Tried,” Merle Haggard’s anthem of disobedience and rebellion, sung from behind bars where he’s going to spend the rest of his days, despite the best intentions of his mother. They don’t blame mama, these outlaws: that wouldn’t be manly, and besides, the flip side of country’s “mother did her best but I was too much to handle” shtick is country’s “I owe everything to mother” tribute song, like George Jones‘ “Mama’s Hands” and The Louvin Brothers‘ “God Bless Her ‘Cause She’s My Mother” (and then there’re the songs where the singer turns to his or her mother for guidance or understanding, e.g., Dolly Parton’s “Mama Say A Prayer,” Miranda Lambert’s “Mama I’m Alright”).
It’s not only country guys who mess up, fail to live up to their mothers’ expectations, but you don’t hear many non-country songs that explain or apologize in that regard. You would think that with all the Jewish songwriters out there, a few of them might have come up with songs that acknowledge the Source of All Guilt, how despite all the kvetching and cajoling they fought back in their own neurotic (and generally not car-stealing, store-robbing, prison-going) ways. This would be a job for Dylan, or Leonard Cohen, to step into Philip Roth/Woody Allen terrain and write a song of (moderate) defiance, because who have let their mothers down more than a Jewish son who hasn’t called so much, it would kill him to pick up a phone once in a while?
So I’ve started one, with a nod to Merle, who wrote the best example of the genre, and here it is. Happy Mother’s Day.
My Mom would always have conniptions
When I wouldn’t wear my mittens
“You’ll catch your death of cold,” she’d always yell
When I brought home B’s and C’s
She’d moan “Oh Moishe please.
I’m suffering while other mothers kvell.”
She’d tell me more and more-a
To practice my Haftorah
But all I did was play my rock and roll
And she’d say it was unsafe
To nosh on so much traife
Oh how my mishegas would take its toll
And I turned 21 at City
Instead of N.Y.U.
No one could change my mind but mama tried, mama tried
Mama guilted me ’til Purim but I never would comply
And all she’d tell her friends was “Look, I tried.”
And I got slapped in the head
When I wouldn’t take pre-med
Like that nice boy Lenny Goldstein up the street
She wanted me to study
‘Stead of hanging with my buddies
‘Til finally she gave up in defeat
And I turned 21 at City
Instead of N.Y.U.
No one could change my mind but mama tried, mama tried
Mama guilted me ’til Purim but I never would comply
And all she’d tell her friends was “Look, I tried.”
Well, sure, I’m most jazzed that there’s new music by Pistol Annies and She & Him, not only because I’m a fan of women who sing about natural fibers (both Miranda Lambert and Zooey Deschanel have recorded “The Fabric of Our Lives” songs in praise of cotton), but because as new-retro-classic moves go, I vote for honky tonk spunk and sunshine pop breeziness, and because those bands are grounded in the kind of song-values I respect, but I live in the world, and how can I not be aware that with the sun finally shining, here come Beyonce, Mariah, Ms Hill and other women from the golden age of whatever (they were all on Columbia Records when I worked there, not that that has anything to do with anything, but just a coincidental sidebar for people looking for some thematic unity) to reclaim our hearts and rule our summer.
I don’t want to be left out, an exile from the mainstream of what’s being discussed in that other music world. so I went on an expedition and checked out Mariah’s “#Beautiful” (a duet with R&B guy Miguel), Beyonce’s “Back To Black” (with Andre 3000, from the soundtrack of The Great Gatsby), and “Neurotic Society (Compulsory Mix)” by Ms Lauryn Hill (you have to call her that, I was told when I was one of a cavalcade of A&R people sent unarmed into battle to try and get some music from her, and became another casualty of her withering scorn and unresponsiveness). Back to the future! To those days when Sony Music was selling skillions of albums by these artists, and someday I’ll get around to telling some stories about the executives who insisted — this I swear — that “Crazy In Love,” “Honey” and “Doo Wop (That Thing)” were not hit records, not even close, and that anyone who argued otherwise was deluded. Just in case you think that all, or even most, record company people know something about music.
But I digress, and not accidentally, because each of these new singles (we still call them singles, right? or just “new tracks”?) is in its own way mystifying to me. I don’t even mean that I don’t like them, although I don’t, but that I literally don’t understand them. I can’t figure out what’s going on, or what’s supposed to be going on. There are fragments of melodies involved (not so much in Ms Hill’s case), and words sung or spoken in English, but they’re not songs exactly, they’re ideas sketched out but not developed. “Neurotic Society” comes with its own warning label from the artist, saying that in a more perfect universe where her income taxes were paid and she wasn’t facing prison time, this recording probably wouldn’t be released (hence the “Compulsory Mix” subtitle), and the caveats are in order: she’s saying a lot of stuff about how messed up the world is, and I caught a line about “Mack The Knife” and James Dean, but it’s a defiantly unmusical thing. She’s angry, and is fond of the word “paradigm,” this much I know.
Not, however, as fond as Mariah is of the word “beautiful.” For the first minute or so Miguel is out there singing the verses on his own over a sexy old-school guitar lick, and then enter Mimi, and it all flattens out into a repetitive groove that isn’t uncatchy. but feels like an improvised “top-line” built around the word “beautiful” rather than a worked-out song (“top-line” – sometimes with a dash, sometimes not — is new industry-speak for what used to be called “lyrics and melody,” except the track has already been produced, which is backwards, I think, but that’s how things are done). Mariah is a presence on the track, certainly, but she isn’t doing a lot of singing. As for Beyonce and Andre 3000’s version of “Back To Black,” I don’t know: I’m sort of with Amy Winehouse’s dad on this one; it feels unnecessary, although maybe it works better in Baz Luhrmann’s movie. On its own, it’s sort of lifeless. Not only is Winehouse’s better, so is Ronnie Spector’s, frayed voice and all. Beyonce’s is simply a throwaway soundtrack cover, and if the movie fizzles, it’ll be quickly forgotten.
But you know what? In my quest to keep up on what’s new and happening, I found another track from The Great Gatsby soundtrack that I’ve had on repeat: Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful.” It’s a languorous mood piece, with Del Rey’s customary Kim Novak-in-Vertigo trance-vocals, and surprise, it may be the best thing she’s done since “Video Games” made her a sort-of-star. She’s always referenced Nancy Sinatra as a template, and here’s where that makes sense: there’s a (modernized) touch of Billy Strange and Lee Hazlewood in the production, and an actual hook, and it all works. It may not win any summer-single sweepstakes — it’s far too drugged-out and woozy for that — but if this is where Del Rey is headed, I’m in.
People at the Staples Center in LA last night spent a considerable chunk of cash to be in the same room as The Rolling Stones, and I’m sure everyone in attendance had a swell time, but I’m still not sure it’s worth around a grand for a good pair of tickets to be able to say you were there when the Stones played “Emotional Rescue” for the first time ever in concert. From what I can tell, that was the only real surprise (oh, “Factory Girl,” maybe, and the fact that they’re still playing those two new songs in midset: why are they still flogging those mediocre tunes, when they could be doing songs from 12 X 5 or Between The Buttons?), in a set that otherwise was Basic Stones. I guess if you’re charging that much, and playing to 15,000 people — and let’s leave aside the question of whether it’s worth $500 a seat to see any rock band on the planet: well-off fans can do what they want with their resources — you have to play it safe and crank out “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Brown Sugar” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (which Jagger once said he couldn’t imagine still singing when he was 40).
Meanwhile, over in Raleigh, North Carolina two nights ago, Bob Dylan played a set that included “Things Have Changed,” “High Water (For Charlie Patton),” “Thunder On The Mountain,” “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” “Love Sick,” and “Early Roman Kings,” all from the last two decades, plus “Visions of Johanna,” “Ballad of A Thin Man,” “Tangled Up In Blue”…you get the idea. You could argue (and I would) that the Dylan repertoire from the ‘60s and into the ‘70s is richer than The Stones’, but that’s a discussion over beer and pretzels, and all I want to point out is that night after night, Dylan is drawing on an insanely deep catalog of songs, that he trusts his fans not to revolt if on a given night he decides to skip over “Like A Rolling Stone” or “Blowin’ In The Wind” or “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” that he’s brought along up-and-coming band Dawes as his opening act, and that with Ticketmaster fees, top price for his show is $58.35, around 1/10th of the highest-priced Stones ticket. And still for under a hundred bucks, you can see Bob Dylan this summer with Wilco and My Morning Jacket.
Friends in Los Angeles were all giddy about being able to catch the Stones’ warm-up show at the small Echoplex venue, and I know what a kick it is to watch Keith and Charlie up close, and I’d have wanted to be there as well, because they are, after all, the Rolling Stones. Yet even in that joint, where they could’ve done anything, tried out older songs that hadn’t done in a while, gone a little deeper, the highlight seems to be that they took “Little Queenie” out of their pocket for the first time in a really long time, so we’re at the historic juncture where the Stones doing a Chuck Berry cover is an event. I hope it was a fun three minutes, because then it was back to the hits.
It’s not for me to tell the Rolling Stones what to do, but I’m going to anyway. Play theaters for a week, like Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers are doing in NYC at the Beacon this month, make each night a unique thing, a bunch of blues and rock & roll covers one night, then a ’70’s Stones Night, or a night devoted to Aftermath or Some Girls or Exile On Main St, an online request night. Schlep guests on stage like The Allman Brothers Band does during their Beacon residencies (The Stones are already doing that: Gwen Stefani and Keith Urban cameo’d at the Staples). Charge a few hundred bucks a ticket if you like. I realize that the Stones can’t do what Dylan does. For one thing, Dylan has actually made albums in the ‘90s and in this century that are worth listening to, so there’s that advantage of having great material that isn’t at least four decades old. Still, there are ways the Stones could honor their legacy that don’t involve asking their aging fans to pony up one more time to hear the classic-rock staples. “Start Me Up,” for real? “It’s Only Rock and Roll”? That’s just predictable, and lazy. What if, just at the next gig, instead of singing “Happy,” Keith sang “Burn Your Playhouse Down” — the duet he recorded with George Jones — with Keith Urban? I’d pay good money to see that.
I want a Sunday kind of love. There are four songwriters whose names are attached to that song (Louis Prima being the most prominent), so how can we know who came up with the title, but it’s brilliant: a Sunday kind of love, a love to last past Saturday night, the hope of the disenchanted, the wish that all the floundering around, all the transient connections, all the dates and hookups, and failed relationships will somehow be in the past, and there will be someone making coffee on Sunday morning while you run downstairs to get bagels and the paper. It’s a song that celebrates coziness, in the abstract, but there’s that “lonely road that leads me nowhere” line that makes it all melancholy. Who knows if it’s out there, this Sunday thing? “I’m hoping to discover a certain kind of lover who will show me the way.” Someone to keep me warm, the singer says. It’s a cold world, after all.
It’s a post-WWII song, and within it is the urge to settle in, stop all the furious activity, and mostly it was women who sang it (Fran Warren on the original version with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, Ella, Dinah, Jo Stafford, then Etta James on what’s been embraced as perhaps the definitive version, arranged in the “At Last” kind of way), and it represented a longing for domesticity, but it’s not corny or regressive or virginal. “A love to last past Saturday night” does imply a certain amount of running around, of necking, at minimum, with guys who weren’t the one, and there’s some anxiety and fatigue in there: how many more dates? But guys jumped in also: Billy Eckstine, for one, and then more guys, groups of guys, than you can possibly imagine, or count, when it was adopted as a doo-wop anthem.
Without really becoming a standard, although I suppose it is at this point, even though there were no hit records of it in the post-rock (’55>) era, it entered the essential doo-wop repertoire (strangely, there’s no major girl group version of it). By no means a complete list: The Harptones, The Del-Vikings, The Marcels, The Halos, The Regents, The Roommates, The Devotions, The Visuals, The Quotations, Dion (with The Del-Satins), The Four Seasons, The Mystics, The El Sierros, even Jan & Dean’s recording (which scraped the Hot 100, barely), was a doo-wop job (like their “Heart and Soul”). Some were incongruously uptempo, some sung at a mournful crawl, but if you were a harmony group, it was a track you had to do laps on: when comedian Robert Klein and his group The Teen Tones appeared on Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour, that was the tune they chose (jumpy, in Del-Viking style).
Lots of singers I like have sung it (Jackie DeShannon, Kenny Rankin), and I’m fond of the Etta-ish take by Beth Rowley from the An Education soundtrack, but I’ve always thought there were missing versions: I imagine Sam Cooke’s, Patsy Cline’s, Sinatra’s, Billie Holiday’s, Nat Cole’s, and I’m puzzled that they don’t exist. I was convinced that I’d missed them somehow, that Sinatra sang it on Your Hit Parade, or that there’s a rare Cole version with his trio, but although I uncovered some unknown-to-me records (Honey & The Bees?), those lost Sundays never turned up. Sometimes, you don’t find what you’re looking for, but get smacked in the head by something amazing.
I’d never heard of The Jubilaires (aka The Jubalaires), a gospel-turned-secular group from the late ‘40s who recorded for Queen, Decca and Capitol, but their “Sunday Kind of Love” turned up, and it’s magnificently spooky and sensual and spiritual all at the same time, one of those records from the 1940s (’47 in this case) that’s a bridge between groups like The Ink Spots and The Mills Brothers and the R&B groups of the ‘50s. “Sunday Kind of Love” by The Jubilaires is reminiscent of The Orioles and The Ravens. It becomes a prayer, and of course it is, but in this case more directly, because if you’re a person of faith, you know in whose hands your romantic destiny lies. So the lead singer is asking for help at the highest executive level (like those commercials for ChristianMingle). I’ve heard “A Sunday Kind of Love” sounding like last call at the cocktail lounge, like lonely mornings, like jivey expressions of possibility, but never like something whispered in church the morning after another disappointing Saturday night.
If the details of Burt Bacharach’s romantic escapades — and there were many, since as Sammy Cahn once said, Burt was the only songwriter who didn’t look like a dentist, and his charms were not lost on an array of women — don’t particularly interest you, you can flip through his new memoir, Anyone Who Had A Heart and get to the really important stuff: his agonizing and intense and perfectionist approach to writing songs, crafting arrangements and producing records. In those areas, he had few peers in the history of popular music, with a catalog so deep and distinguished (and lucrative) that it rattles the brain. When Bacharach and I were briefly in creative communication (I was the assigned U.S. A&R rep for his Columbia album At This Time, and assured him a Grammy win if he allowed the label to submit it as Best Pop Instrumental Album, so a good thing I was right), I wanted to ask him for a gift of a small piece of the publishing on any one of his lesser songs; I’d have taken a slice of “24 Hours From Tulsa,” or “In The Land of Make Believe.” I didn’t care: I could retire on any one of them. I mean, his movie songs alone make an epic list: “Alfie,” “The Look of Love,” “A House Is Not A Home,” “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” and then there are all the Dionne Warwick and Gene Pitney and Jackie DeShannon and Chuck Jackson, Carpenters and Drifters songs, and the album with Elvis Costello. It’s crazy.
And he writes about almost all of his major songs in the book, in great detail, so it’s an essential read. It’s has everything that was missing from Carole King’s memoir: an examination of a body of work, a look into the studio, into the intricacies of how the collaboration with Hal David actually functioned from song to song, Bacharach’s manic attention to what other people might consider minutiae. He had to become a producer, because as a writer, he kept hearing things that were wrong: he was annoyed that Gene McDaniels’ “Tower of Strength” was cut at too fast a tempo, he complained about the mastering on Jerry Butler’s “Make It Easy On Yourself”, he thought Brook Benton was “a real pain in the ass” and couldn’t sing the right notes on “A House Is Not A Home”: he needed total control.
And even once he became a huge deal, he’d bristle when one of his songs was mishandled in the studio. He’s no fan of Sonny Bono’s production of Cher’s version of ‘Alfie,” and he points out that Love plays the wrong chords on their take on “My Little Red Book.” Anyone Who Had A Heart has tales of multiple takes, artists bravely attempting to navigate those whiplash changes and hat-size tempos. Singing a Bacharach melody is like trying to juggle and eat pizza at the same time, and even veteran Broadway singer Jerry Orbach struggled with the complexity of “Promises, Promises.” When a singer like Dionne Warwick or Dusty Springfield or Karen Carpenter (or more recently, Rumer) tackles Bacharach-David material, they create the illusion that these songs are so singable. Welcome to karaoke suicide mission.
There’s all that inside-baseball, but there are also some revelations and bits of gossip, like the time Sinatra hung up on Bacharach when he was a little slow in committing to a date to start a proposed Frank-Burt album, the financial fracas that broke up David and Bacharach during the catastrophic Lost Horizon project, Warwick’s irrational possessiveness (and her hesitance to turn over the “That’s What Friends Are For” proceeds to charity, because didn’t she just do the pro bono thing on “We Are The World”? How giving is she expected to be?), the disappointment when “Alfie” lost the Oscar for Best Original Song to “Born Free” (and we can see now how that turned out: one became a modern standard, the other forgotten schmaltz).
I sat in a coffee shop and gulped the book down, reading Herb Alpert’s recollection of “This Guy’s In Love With You,” Elvis Costello telling the story of “God Give Me Strength” and Painted From Memory, Paul Jones from Manfred Mann remembering at least nineteen takes of “My Little Red Book” (and how much trouble the rest of the band had with the chords): throughout the book, these participants pop up with anecdotes and angles of their own, fleshing out Bacharach’s narrative. The personal messiness in his marriage to Angie Dickinson isn’t, to me, as fascinating as the fact that she helped get him his first film-soundtrack gig for What’s New Pussycat?, and then walked him through how the whole movie scoring process worked.
Another thing I didn’t know: Bacharach and David cut “Walk On By” and “Anyone Who Had A Heart” with Dionne at the same session, and then “argued about which song to release first.” After “Anyone Who Had A Heart” hit, Florence Greenberg, who ran Scepter Records, still wasn’t sold on “Walk On By,” so she stuck it on the B-side of another single, “Any Old Time Of Day.” As Bacharach tells it, “Murray The K played both sides on his radio show in New York, and then asked his listeners to vote on which one they liked better.” On such events do the wheels of pop history turn.
There have been plenty of eloquent tributes to Richie Havens, and amen, but what I want to honor, with a dose of generational bias, is the role that radio played in putting the spotlight on him. Ask almost anyone in my general age bracket and from my geographical area when and how they first heard Havens, and I’d plunk down a wad of cash that most of them would say: on Rosko’s nighttime show on WNEW-FM in 1967. Rosko started to play multiple cuts from Mixed Bag — “San Francisco Bay Blues,” “Follow,” “Just Like A Woman,” “High Flyin’ Bird” — and that exposure alone made Havens a star in New York City. That was FM radio’s zenith of power, when one deejay could pluck an album from out of the pile of new releases, program more than just a single that the label was promoting, and reach pretty much everyone who mattered in the world of what I guess was still called “underground music.” Although Havens had been kicking around the scene in the village for a while, when he got the Rosko — and then the rest of the ‘NEW staff — seal of approval, that was enough to break him, to make Mixed Bag one of those albums that was in the air for the good part of that year. By September, I was in the audience at the Village Theater (before it became the Fillmore East), where Havens was on the bill with Cream and the Soul Survivors (that’s another thing I should mention: the adventurous musical match-ups at the live shows that made it possible for a folk singer to open for a British blues-power trio, with a blue-eyed soul band from Philly thrown in as a bonus). So, R.I.P. Richie Havens, and while we’re at it, R.I.P. Rosko, and the freewheeling, free-form, unshackled freedom and influence of radio.
The thing about Jeff Buckley, for me, was that throughout his brief career he was always in the process of becoming. You couldn’t get a grip on him; he was too fluid, too hard to zero in on, so for us in the industry, he was like a creative Rorschach test: part of what drew us to him was the idea of what he might be, and every A&R person who pursued him had a different take on that, filtered through our own prism: neo-folkie, soul singer, rock god, chanteur, abstract impressionist, lighthouse keeper, whatever. He ended up, as we know, signing with Steve Berkowitz at Columbia, and recorded Grace, which has become accepted as a classic album, although truthfully, it strikes me as a a brave but flawed debut, still a work in progress, and I was so looking forward to the next one. Maybe Steve had the best A&R idea of all of us, which was to follow Jeff’s lead: whatever it was he came up with, it was not going to be because he took direction well.
So, I didn’t get to sign Jeff Buckley in 1992, and because of that, I didn’t have anything to tie me to the label where I was employed, and the following year I accepted an offer to go to Columbia and we would bump into each other sometimes on the 24th floor of the Sony Building, and sometimes he’d plop himself on my couch and talk about, oh, Jimmy Reed or John Lee Hooker or other blues records. Once I told him I was going record-shopping in Nashville, and he asked if I could look for an album by Allen Ginsberg, and any of those “Co-Star” albums where a famous actor reads one part in a play, and there’s a script where the listener can do the other lead. I’ve written about some of this stuff before, in the liner notes to the expanded Legacy Edition of Live At Sin-e, and I’m only bringing it up again because I just watched the movie Greetings From Tim Buckley (terrible title), about Jeff’s trip to New York to play at a tribute concert to his dad, whom he barely knew, and I pressed “play” with trepidation, expecting a clunky bio-pic starring one of the guys from Gossip Girl.
It isn’t clunky (well, a little), and Penn Badgley’s performance has some moments that capture Jeff’s exuberance and moodiness. By focusing in on a few days in Jeff’s life before all the buzz and hoopla hit, director and co-writer Daniel Algrant can deal with one of the aspects of Jeff’s life that was always slightly confusing to me: the burden of expectations. You would think that he was Lenny Bruce’s son doing stand-up at Caroline’s. Tim Buckley had a following, but he was hardly legendary, and it’s a safe bet that fans seeing this movie because it’s about Jeff will be hearing more Tim Buckley music than they’ve ever heard before, both the original recordings and the live interpretations at the recreated tribute.
As in real life, Buckley comes into the room with that qualifier: he’s Tim Buckley’s kid. Everyone assembling and participating in the tribute concert remarks on the resemblance, and Jeff, sensibly enough, wonders what he’s doing there. He doesn’t sing his father’s music, didn’t have a relationship with him, and it’s not even clear whether anyone putting the show together, including producer Hal Willner, knows what he sounds like, or whether he’s talented. But Jeff — again, as in real life — has a quality that pulls everyone in. Guitarist Gary Lucas wants to write and perform with him, the women in rehearsals swoon over him (few were the women I know who didn’t), his father’s old bandmate Lee Underwood wants to share old stories with him. To escape all this, he charms a young assistant (Imogen Poots) and takes a day trip upstate, to His Father’s House, now abandoned and rundown and, for all I know, haunted. This is the moment that clunks, not because Badgley and Poots aren’t fun to watch together, but because we’re back to that whole dad-issues theme, and enough.
It all leads to the night of the big show, and Buckley/Badgley doing a touching version of “Once I Was,” and a review in The New York Times, and a flight back to California, and one of the smart things the movie does is stop right there: his past confronted and exorcised, the A&R people (and a cute girl he wants to write songs with) eager for him to come back. There’s talk of another, authorized, Jeff Buckley movie that would cover what happened after, and include his music (there’s almost none of it in Greetings, except for a brief jam with Gary Lucas), but I don’t think that’s something I’d want to see. Just like we all had our versions of what Jeff could do, I have my own perspective on that chapter.