don’t know much about history…


“School bells ring and children sing, it’s back to Robert Hall again,” and there are a dozen words that, if you’re of a certain age, might make you queasy, because here it is the end of August and no one, not even Les Paul and Mary Ford, can put a glow on the memories of packing up all the summer stuff and preparing for another year of school, going to the five-and-ten for loose-leaf notebooks and pencil cases and reinforcements and dreading a new homeroom teacher and hating the idea of gym. They were agony, the last days of summer, and yet for some reason there are pop records that attempt to make the prospect of buying a protractor and starting a new semester into a fun thing. What were they thinking? Gary (U.S.) Bonds had a rowdy, eruptive hit with “School Is Out,” but has there ever been a more misguided follow-up than “School Is In”? Honestly, “I’m so glad that school is in” is something that no one said ever, but the premise of the Bonds recording is that his summer was a drag, doing chores and so forth, so getting back to his studies is like a reprieve, and Daddy G blows his sax like this is going to be one big party, and no one bought it for a second. This was in the center of a cluster of five Top 10 hits for Mr. Bonds, but ‘School Is In” could climb no higher than #28.

The idea of school in rock & roll — Chuck Berry’s “School Days,” Ricky Nelson’s “Waitin’ In School” — was that the time until 3:00 pm was something you had to suffer through until you could bolt out of your seat and start to rock, so the notion of school being in any way groovy was bizarre, but then came Bobby Rydell’s “Swingin’ School,” and boy, he could not sound any more excited: “Chicks! Kicks! Cats! Cool!” he yells, and apparently his school allows dancing because that’s one of the things he’s so jazzed about, along with his classmates’ fashion sense. Also, the way his chick kisses him puts the school on fire; it’s not so much the school itself that’s swingin’, but an awfully relaxed code of conduct, Rydell’s labelmate Timmie Rogers, on “Back To School Again,” had a more common reaction: “Bye bye good times, back to school again. No more swimmin’, hello history.” And on “When School Stars Again,” Anthony Perkins, yes, that Anthony Perkins, is all moony about whether his summer fling will remember all the fun they had and the records they played. “Who’s gonna be talkin’ to you in the hall?,” he asks, as though that’s any of his concern. Perkins also cut a single, “The Prettiest Girl In School,” so who is he to speculate about what his beach baby is up to in the fall?.”

Dee Clark says that he misses his teachers and is determined to get a diploma on “I’m Going Back To School.” “All the pretty girls, that’s where they’ll all be,” he says, which does sound like a strong incentive not to drop out, and in the middle of the track he stops singing to ask some of his friends if they’re going to be at school, and when one of them (Humphrey) says he doesn’t think he’s going to make it, Dee tells him they’ll miss him on the football team. School spirit! Like Gary (U.S.) Bonds, Clark made a dramatic stumble with this lyrical approach: his prior single, “Raindrops,” was #2 during the summer; this one didn’t make the Top 50, and he never had another hit again. Bo Diddley stuck his “Back To School” on the B-side of his last single to make the Hot 100, and We Three’s neo-doo-wop “Back To School” (on Courtney Records) didn’t even chart. Neither did Wilbert Harrison and His Kansas City Playboys’ Doc 45 “Off To School Again.” Or “School Bells Are Ringing” by Carole King, which shared a 45 with her Labor Day Weekend lament “I Didn’t Have Any Summer Romance” (so going back to school, not such a big deal).

Kids seemed to enjoy school more out in L.A.: there’s The Beach Boys’ “Be True To Your School” and “All Dressed Up For School,” and Jan & Dean extolling the charms of “The New Girl In School.” But happy-to-be-back songs are far less common than get-me-out-here songs. Or school-fucked-me-up songs like Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome,” The Ramones’ Rock’N’Roll High School” (first words: “”Well I don’t care about history”), or Graham Parker’s great spitball at the teacher’s neck, “Back To Schooldays.” He going back all right, but he’s pissed off.

Now, if I seem just a might confused
Don’t give me all of the blame boys
Twenty-four years just obeying the rules
No wonder I’m half-insane boys

School bells ring, but that doesn’t mean we have to be happy about it.

tony’s silver lining songbook


Tony Bennett has an album of songs by Jerome Kern coming out next month, with Bill Charlap on piano, a project that was previewed nearly five years ago on Elvis Costello’s Spectacle when Bennett and Charlap performed “I’m Old Fashioned” and “The Way You Look Tonight,” songs that appear on The Silver Lining. Other Kern tunes represented in the new project, like “All The Things You Are,” “I Won’t Dance” and “Long Ago and Far Away,” have popped up in the Bennett repertoire over the past six decades, and there are some beautiful selections that for some reason Tony hadn’t gotten around to until now, so expect a worthy addition to the insanely vast Bennett catalog of American Standards and be grateful that in his 90th year on the planet he’s given free rein to record any damned thing he wants, because it wasn’t always so, and there are some extremely odd things in the Bennett discography. Like a session in early 1955 with Percy Faith when he cut a semi-rockin’ version of the then-oldie “Close Your Eyes,” backed with a cover of The Orioles’ doo-wop masterwork, Deborah Chessler’s “It’s Too Soon To Know.” He even was part of an Alan Freed R&R bill at the Brooklyn Paramount, and as Nick Tosches says in Unsung Heroes of Rock ’n’ Roll, “Columbia decided that Tony Bennett would be its rock-’n’-roll star. ‘DIG THE CRAZIEST!! HE SWINGS!! HE ROCKS!! HE GOES!!’” “Close Your Eyes” was hyped as an “ASTOUNDING RHYTHM AND BLUES RENDITION.”

This was, of course, pure madness, as were such Bennett platters as “(Come Back And) Tell Me That You Love Me’ by R&B cleffer Lincoln Chase, and Chase’s “Cinnamon Sinner” (“Lemonade teardrops fall from her eyes”). But it was all part of a futile attempt to sell Bennett to the dungaree dolls who were driving the pop market. He nearly hit the top 10 in ’56 with the completely bonkers “From The Candy Store On The Corner To The Chapel On The Hill,” backed with “Happiness Street (Corner Sunshine Square).” The second half of the ‘50s, it’s safe to say, was not an auspicious period for Bennett as a singles artist, although he made some excellent LPs, including The Beat of My Heart (there’s a Kern song on that one, “Let’s Begin”), Long Ago and Far Away and a couple of sets with Count Basie.

The back end of the ‘60s (after ’66’s The Movie Song Album) into the early ‘70s — until nice Rodgers & Hart collections in ’73 and the essential Bill Evans collaboration in ’75 — was another dip in Bennett’s fortunes commercially and, it must be said, creatively. You would think Bennett plus Bacharach would’ve been a relatively compatible association, but Bennett stumbled on “Alfie,” flailed around in the midst of a loungey arrangement of “What The World Needs Now Is Love,” and couldn’t find the window into “The Look of Love” and “Make It Easy On Yourself.” And we will not speak of The Great Hits of Today! except to note that “Eleanor Rigby” is recited, “MacArthur Park” is truncated, and Bennett’s distaste for “Little Green Apples” is undisguised. The Teo Macero-produced sequel, Tony Bennett’s Something, is only marginally better (“Wave,” as well as “The Gentle Rain” from his Love Story album and an earlier “How Insensitive,” make one wish for the Bennett Bossa album that never was), and if you poke around the last Columbia albums of his first tenure at the label, you’ll find stray curios that could be compiled into an interesting period overview: Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind,” Blossom Dearie’s “Sweet Georgie Fame,” Kern & Dorothy Fields’ “Remind Me,” the John Barry-Don Black theme from Walkabout.

It’s a frustrating endeavor, sifting through the recordings Bennett made from the early ‘50s through the early-mid-‘70s, because there was always the sense of conflict going on, whether it was cutting 45s like “Cinnamon Sinner” or recording albums like Love Story and Summer of ’42. So Bennett’s LPs would have lovely versions of “There Will Never Be Another You” and “I Only Have Eyes For You” sharing vinyl space with things like “Hushabye Mountain” and a song called “Play It Again, Sam” (“From the Broadway Production,” the label says, but I don’t recall it being in the Woody Allen play). Finally, Bennett had to bolt Columbia to get his equilibrium back, and spent almost an entire decade in the record-biz wilderness, not stepping into a studio from ’77 until ’86, when he returned to Columbia with The Art of Excellence, the beginning of the most dramatic and sustained comeback made by any singer of his generation. Among the many heartbreaking scenes in the documentary about Amy Winehouse shows them working in the studio, Winehouse rattled and eager to please, Bennett patient and encouraging, and I’d have loved to hear an album by the two of them. Still, it’s nice to see that Kern set coming around the corner, and if the first impulse is to think, really?, “The Way You Look Tonight,” again?, the second is: it’s Tony, and if he feels like singing “The Way You Look Tonight,” I’ve got zero problem with that.

that other man from u.n.c.l.e.


The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was the first network TV show with a post-Beatles-’60s zing. Premiering in the fall of ’64, the same time Goldfinger was opening in theaters in the U.K., and within days of when Shindig! became the first prime time ’60s music show, it was spies-a-go-go. When it turned up on NBC, originally on Tuesday nights, it faced off against Red Skelton over on stodgy CBS, and then on Mondays (Hullaballoo took over its Tuesday slot), it was surrounded by relics on competing networks: game shows, Lucille Ball, Danny Thomas, Bing Crosby, George Burns, Andy Griffith.

I suppose the idea of making a new U.N.C.L.E. movie was to create a franchise that, like Mission: Impossible, combines boomer nostalgia with modern cinematic mayhem, rebrands 21st century Napoleon Solo as a Bond counterpart (I guess if the film had clicked, a Matt Helm or Derek Flint reboot would already be in development), but it was a big domestic fizzle at the U.S. box office. It just didn’t seem like much fun, and I’m saying that as someone who was smack in the center of U.N.C.L.E. generation, digging the gadgets and the girls (like the just-departed Yvonne Craig, already a television crush from Dobie Gillis and 77 Sunset Strip, who showed up in season one’s The Brain-Killer Affair and the ’66 U.N.C.L.E. feature One Spy Too Many), trying to pull off an Illya Kuryakin look with a wardrobe of inexpensive cotton turtlenecks purchased at Alexander’s on Fordham Road. It did not work, needless to say.

The whole Illya thing was amazing. David McCallum was cast as the sidekick — the lead character’s name was “Solo,” after all, and it was “The Man” in the show’s name, so running around in a two-guy team was probably not the intention — but the fan mail that flooded MGM wasn’t addressed to Robert Vaughn as the titular lead. McCallum captured the hearts (and, as we could see from the effect on Sally Draper in Mad Men, beyond) of young American girls seduced by a Russian (!!) secret agent played — and this was no small factor in that year — by an actor from the U.K.

In the wake of Illyamania, McCallum was signed to the same label as The Beatles (Capitol) to make records, despite being being devoid of singing or musical ability. No matter: he had some talent as a writer-arranger, and what mattered most was the opportunity to plant his face on a 12X12 album cover. What was on the vinyl itself, who cared, really? Capitol assigned him David Axelrod and H.B. Barnum to produce and arrange the tracks, instrumental interpretations of whatever was on the singles charts — “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Downtown” — and some McCallum, Barnum and Axelrod originals. The debut was called Music-A Part of Me (“David McCallum Conducts Personal Impressions of…”), and its sequel was Music: A Bit More of Me (same formula as the first, with an Axelrod composition, “The Edge,” that’s been frequently sampled, and with a left-field cover choice, The Byrds’ “It Won’t Be Wrong”). Two more LPs followed: Music-It’s Happening Now! (highlights: an orchestral “Louie Louie,” a fairly swinging “Love Is A Hurting Thing”) and finally simply: McCallum.

He also hosted The Big T.N.T. Show in 1965 (the lesser-known follow-up to The T.A.M.I. Show), an event that smashed together Phil Spector, who musically curated the thing, Ray Charles, Joan Baez (singing “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” with Spector on piano), The Byrds, Roger Miller, Bo Diddley, The Lovin’ Spoonful…it’s a hoot. At the start, McCallum comes bounding down the aisles accompanied by the screams of female fans, gets up on the podium and conducts the band with his fists and intense facial expressions as the girls do a seated shing-a-ling (and clap on the off-beat) to his “personal impression” of The Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (later in the proceedings, having changed from a white turtleneck into a black one, he leads the band through the Len Barry hit “1-2-3”). The girls whistle and shriek, as though this weren’t some awkward transformation of a rock anthem, as though McCallum had actually done something other than gesture and grimace. Throughout the show, he introduces the acts from off-stage (“Now here’s a young lady just up from downtown, Pet Clark!,” Watch the technique of Bo Diddley!”), and before bringing out The Byrds, he recites a few lines of “Turn! Turn! Turn!”

If you come across McCallum LPs at flea markets and used-record stores, or decide to watch The T.N.T. Show to see the electrifying Ike & Tina Turner or The Ronettes, and you’re under, say, fifty, there’s bound to be some confusion: who was this McCallum person, why was he making albums, what was he doing in front of a band punching at the air when we could be seeing Ray Charles or Bo Diddley? Was he hip in some way? It’s like if you weren’t around in the ’90s and you’re trying to figure out what the deal was with P. Diddy: what was that all about? But if you clicked on your television set in September 1964 looking for a program to watch after Combat! or Mr. Novak, and you found The Man From U.N.C.L.E., it was as if the dial was turned to some channel that’d been hidden away. Something cooler was happening.

i can hear music


If The Ronettes invented everything that would eventually lead to Destiny’s Child — in film clips, their rear ends are in constant motion, decades before the whole bootylicious situation exploded — then Ronnie Spector was Beyonce, a supernatural force designed to weaken the knees of powerful men and inspire girls to go to Woolworth’s for eyeliner and Aqua Net. She’s left a trail of admirers sprawled across the years, from Beatles and Rolling Stones to Brian Wilson and Joey Ramone and the whole E Street/Jukes crowd, all angling for proximity, all eager to pay homage, all who quaked at the quiver in her voice that streamed out of the radio expressing romantic yearning and unconditional surrender. “For every kiss you give me, I’ll give you three,” she promised, and that seemed like a fair exchange to boys who sat in the balcony of the Brooklyn Fox (and the RKO Fordham, in the case of this pre-adolescent) and were hypnotized by the mechanics of anatomy that, it seemed, made the fringe at the bottoms of the Ronettes’ dresses vibrate one way while the hips of The Ronettes moved in another. Would we ever understand sex? There were girls like Ronnie, Nedra and Estelle in the neighborhood, girls who knew the score, we guessed, who looked tough, and we couldn’t imagine that their hearts could melt, or that we could make ourselves known to them.

The Ronettes only had one top 10 single in their career, “Be My Baby,” which stalled at #2 in Billboard, but no one I know believes that it was anything but the most popular song on the planet from the second in the late summer of 1963 when Hal Blaine’s drum intro was the loudest, most insistent thing ever to test the limits of the transistor radio, and Ronnie’s voice came oozing through the swirl of the strings. You can tell me that it wasn’t a #1 hit, but that statistic is simply meaningless, as is the fact that none of their seven subsequent chart singles on Philles Records ever got into the Top 20. I mean, yes, I can read the facts on paper, so I don’t dispute them, but there are facts that are irrelevant and ones that are misleading, and the significance of The Ronettes goes beyond the three or four songs that the casual pop fan might recognize. They weren’t the first important Girl Group: Arlene Smith with The Chantels had a voice of such power and emotion that it made most other girl singers sound like timid children, and The Shirelles’ records were filled with warmth and teenage anguish. But with The Ronettes, the combination of Ronnie’s plaintive voice and those arrangements and mixes where castanets were as prominent as however many pianos and guitars were in the room at Gold Star was daringly assertive.

Artists like Ronnie Spector are usually stuck in a bind, thrown on multi-artist oldies bills where they get to do a handful of their most popular tunes, trigger the memory endorphins for ten or fifteen minutes then scurry to the wings. You don’t get the scope, you only hear the singles, so a career is reduced to what was on the radio. I’m sure Ronnie does those gigs all the time, sings “Be My Baby,” “Walking In The Rain,” “Baby I Love You” and maybe one or two other songs, but she’s also put together a 90-minute show, Ronnie Spector Sings The Fabulous Ronettes, that came into NYC’s City Winery and has the kind of breadth that the devoted yearn for and rarely get. It’s part spoken reminiscence — Ronnie introduces each song, talks about the songwriters (not the producer, for obvious reasons) — part visual retrospective (there are clips of the girls on Bandstand, The TNT Show, etc., and still photos that are stunning), and it traces nearly the entire Ronettes repertoire, starting with “Why Don’t They Let Us Fall In Love,” ending with “I Can Hear Music,” and including things that stayed in the vaults for years like “I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine” and “Woman In Love (With You).” So if you never thought you’d be at a show where Ronnie sang “You Came, You Saw, You Conquered” or “Is This What I Get For Loving You,” surprise. And “You Baby,” “Paradise,” “So Young”…

She also reclaims “Chapel of Love,” which she had dibs on and cut first, but when her producer decided not to release it as a single, its co-writers Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich picked it up and recorded it for Red Bird Records with The Dixie Cups. The implication is that it was a blown opportunity for another big hit single, and it was, but the opportunity was blown in the studio, not in the producer’s office. I know this is an “A&R” thing to say, but The Ronettes’ version misses the mark; it’s kind of draggy and muddled, Ronnie sounds restrained, the background vocals are distracting. It’s not a hit record, just a curious footnote, the album cut it wound up becoming. Ronnie did it better at the Winery gig, so in a way, it was making things right. The whole show was about making things right, showcasing songs like “The Best Part of Breaking Up” that should have climbed higher on the charts, letting the body of work speak, and if there were a few songs I missed (“Everything Under The Sun,” “Born To Be Together,” “Girls Can Tell”), it was more than I’d have ever expected more than five decades after she became my first musical crush.

enter sandman


I have to confess that I’d get a kick out of voting for a 74-year old socialist who sounds as though he could be a character in a Herb Gardner play, and I’m hoping that Larry David hosts one of the early SNL episodes of the ’15 season to do a Bernie Sanders sketch; he won’t even have to modulate his usual tone and cadences all that much. The idea of “President Bernie,” as Sarah Silverman is already wishfully calling him, is kind of awesome, and there’s every chance that the Hillary steamroller will putter out around Tu B’Shvat ’16, right before Iowa and New Hampshire, and what fun it’ll be. I have a few campaign-slogan ideas. “Bernie: Why Not?” has a nice ring to it. Or “It Couldn’t Hurt.” For Democrats, the 2016 election is all about playing defense anyway: Congress will still be stacked with Republicans, so all we need is someone in the White House with a pen to veto all the nutjob bills that’ll be passed. Nothing is going to get done, so why not elect a guy who at least will be entertaining for four years? “Please turn on your magic beam,” the song goes. “Mr. Sandman bring me a dream” (I’ve always assumed Mr. Sandman is Jewish, and changed his name from Sanderstein or something like that).

It’s not a bad theme song for Bernie. It appeared on the pop charts in 1954, right on the cusp of the rock & roll era, and was recorded by Vaughn Monroe and most successfully by The Chordettes on Cadence Records. Sanders had his bar mitzvah that year in Brooklyn, right around the time that The Chordettes were making their plaintive plea for a romantic delivery in the form of a gentleman with hair like Liberace, but presumably someone more likely to be attracted to a Chordette. The song has a Disneyesque quality, like “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and if you want to describe the pop sound of that pre-Elvis time, when Alan Freed had just moved his base of operations from Cleveland to New York City and everything was about to shift, this is one of the records you’d play: it’s tinkly and chaste, like the records Mitch Miller was making over at Columbia and the songs the McGuire Sisters were cutting at Coral, but it hints at a longing, to end the series of lonely nights and, implicit in the lyric, to share a bed. The singers, female (like the multi-tracked Mary Ford, with Les Paul) or male (The Four Aces version was used in Back To The Future, and the U.K. hit was by the unctuous and unfortunately named Dickie Valentine), want something more, something elusive.

“Mr. Sandman” has stuck around longer than most pop songs from that moment, that pocket of time when the Top 40 chart was a beatless paradise: “Little Things Mean A Lot” (#1 the whole summer of ’54), “Papa Loves Mambo,” “Three Coins In The Fountain,” “This Ole House,” other big hits, have aged badly and faded, but there’s something sweet and optimistic about “Mr. Sandman” (written by Pat Ballard) that has kept it resurfacing when the #1 singles of Eddie Fisher, for example, the top guy crooner of the year alongside Perry Como, are forgotten, Most recently the retro trio The Puppini Sisters have revived it, and Bette Midler did it on her most recent album of songs by female groups (which may or may not be the same as Girl Groups). The best “modern” rendition — relatively speaking — was cut in the ’70s by Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton, an utterly beguiling take (the Dolly harmony on the “lots of wavy hair like Liberace” line and on the word “peachy,” slays me) that wound up on Emmylou’s Evangeline album in ’81. It’s a song that, more than sixty years after it spent two months at #1, still taps something, an itch to break out of a dry spell; it’s a song of, as the last guy to take on Clinton offered the nation, hope. It would be so peachy, and who doesn’t like a nice peach?

getting out of tune


iTunes has broken up with me. Not in any abrupt, declarative way, but more like someone who stops returning texts, unfriends on Facebook and always has something else going on. It’s like what Garfunkel and Oates call “The Fadeaway,” the passive, non-confrontational tactic. But I can’t say my feelings aren’t hurt; iTunes and I were so happy for a long time. I could organize my vast (200 days worth) of music into playlists that made perfect sense to me, download cool artwork to flip on my iTunes screensaver, carry thousands of songs in my jacket pocket, thousands of tracks that are unavailable anywhere else, from my collection of vinyl and illicit CD’s, complete live shows, alternate takes, out-of-circulation LPs. All I asked of iTunes was to be like a storage locker for my musical stuff, and if Apple had said, sure, but it’ll cost you a monthly rental fee to keep your tens of thousands of tracks exactly where you like them, that would have been worth more to me than a stupid subscription fee to stream Apple Music, which is of absolutely no value in my life. I’ve got my own music, thanks very much, and if I want to hear newer things or things I don’t possess, I can go over to Spotify, which as far as I can tell has no intention of tampering with my existing library. It’s a separate thing altogether, as it should be.

Friends and acquaintances who have “upgraded” (ha!) iTunes to gain access to Apple Music have recounted nightmares of tracks and playlists being vandalized, “duplicates” being deleted (that is, songs of the same title by the same artist, regardless if they’re alternate takes, demos, live versions; i Tunes has no time to make creative distinctions), inaccurate artwork being substituted, albums being chopped up into fragments. I realize that I use music differently than most normal people: right now, I’m working on one doo-wop-related project and one involving songs from Greenwich Village in the ’60s, so I’ve created multiple playlists of rare stuff, and I’d be appalled if Apple Music decided that it had better — i.e., remastered stereo, re-recordings — versions of some of those songs. I care very much about such matters, and iTunes/Apple Music does not give a damn. I also don’t want someone else “curating” playlists for me. I just put together about 75 tracks that center around a Small Faces axis, Humble Pie, Ronnie Lane & Pete Townshend, solo Marriott, Majik Mijits, and even if Apple Music has the Majik Mijits album, would it know to place it amidst Humble Pie’s Town and Country and Ron Wood & Ronnie Lane’s Mahoney’s Last Stand and Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance on the BBC? Color me skeptical.

And so it’s time for me to wake up and realize that iTunes just isn’t that into me anymore. I have my souvenirs, iPods in pretty much every room, filled with old playlists that will last as long as the iPods themselves survive. The iPod was the invention I’d been waiting for since I was a kid: a device that I could carry around everywhere, with thousands and thousands of songs that I’d selected and programmed, the satisfying click of the wheel, the serendipity of shuffle. The iTunes store was klnd of fun also, finding random songs that I’d been searching for, forking over 99 cents each and having them appear instantly in my library. Oh, I know we’re moving towards a streaming universe where, theoretically, everything is available on demand; the concept of music ownership is antiquated to most people. But first of all, “everything” is not available. I’d make a rough guess that of the 73,000 items in my iTunes library, 15-20% are not going to be found on Apple Music or any other service. And second of all, if everything — even this wildly inaccurate definition of everything — is available, and nothing is owned, the whole concept of a music collection becomes meaningless, which in a weird way means that my entire existence, in the High Fidelity sense, is meaningless. Music is autobiography, as the character in the Hornby novel implies when he decides to order his album collection in the sequence in which the albums were acquired. If Hornby ever gets around to writing that sequel he’s mentioned, this is something Rob is going to need to grapple with: the amorphous, cacophonous blur that online music has created.

I have a grief counselor coming over to make my iTunes break-up as smooth as possible; apparently there are other internet options — the word Plex has been bandied about — that will take a more hands-off attitude regarding what I choose to save and how I choose to save it. It’s a shame, really, because when it was working, iTunes was the ideal solution: import, organize, play. How hard is that? Don’t editorialize about the music, don’t assume that all those versions of Bob Dylan doing “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (mono album version, alternate versions, live in ’62, live with The Band, live with Wynton Marsalis…) are redundant and eliminate all but one on a Dylan boxed set. Don’t select album art for me. In a perfect relationship, we accept all of the other person’s quirks and eccentricities. iTunes decided, I guess, that I was too difficult, or obsessive. Sorry it didn’t work out.

the bard of the bronx


The voice in the booth says “‘The Wanderer,’ take one,” and Dion says, “These lyrics get me.” Then he starts to sing: he’s the type of guy who will never settle down, he insists. Where pretty girls are, he’s around. He can’t be confined, not by relationships, obviously, but there’s something else going on, the desire to burst from the neighborhood, from expectations, to roam from town to town aimlessly, and unless you were a kid in the early ’60s (especially one in The Bronx, where the singer and the writer were from), you can’t imagine how dramatic the idea of “The Wanderer” was. Richard Price knew, and the song gave his first book its title, his street gang its identity and its theme song. Lou Reed knew, and quoted the song when he inducted Dion into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ernie Maresca wrote “The Wanderer” and created more than a hit; he created a character, a doo wop Neal Cassady, a streetcorner superhero. The Wanderer had Flo on his left arm and Mary on his right (like a dyslexic Diana Ross), and although he admits he’s goin’ nowhere, that itself was seductive.

Where were we going? To school, to the park, to the movies. We were goin’ nowhere, and even if we’d begun to think about girls in That Way, we had less than a clue what to do to get the attention of girls, or what to do if we got within range. Dion, through the words of Maresca, was a guide to attitude, and in other songs that they co-wrote, they were giving us a voice. I found “Lonely World” on the Runaround Sue album: “I’m just a fool who’s searchin’ for someone to care.” The next album had the staggering “Lovers Who Wander,” where Dion’s been dumped, and finds solace in what sounds like a support group for dumpees. “Look at me now,” he basically sneers. He’s the luckiest guy in the human race, and the chick is yesterday’s news. Dion, with Maresca, invented this lonely world for lovers who wander, an escape from girls like Runaround Sue, for example, someone who “goes out with other guys.”

“Here’s my story, it’s sad but true.” How is it possible that Dion DiMucci and/or Ernie Maresca are not in the Songwriters Hall of Fame? Dion, I trust, will get in there eventually (for God’s sake, he wrote “Born To Cry,” which was a Springsteen song waiting to happen, and “Little Diane,” and “Lost For Sure” and “Love Came To Me”…), but Maresca, who passed away this month, if he did nothing else but co-write “Runaround Sue” with Dion and “The Wanderer” on his own, should be more recognized as someone who gave the early ’60s some sharkskin snap. As a singer, well, let’s just say he had enthusiasm — his one hit, ‘Shout! Shout! (Knock Yourself Out)” was a raucous Dion-Gary U.S. Bonds pastiche with the twist drums that you heard everywhere in ’62 — but apart from his writing catalog with Dion, he came up with some inspired one-offs: “Whenever A Teenager Cries” by Reparata and The Delrons (confession: I just like typing “Reparata and The Delrons”), the party-time “Hey Jean, Hey Dean” by, you guessed it, Dean and Jean, and The Regents’ great follow-up to “Barbara Ann,” “Runaround.” “Runaround” hit the charts right before “Runaround Sue,” and if anyone asked me what the post-Dion & The Belmonts doo-wop sound of The Bronx sounded like, I’d play them this 45. It’s pure chaos, “Bomm-bomm-bomm” intro, leading into a bunch of voices, some falsetto, banging into each other, and the hook is essentially the word “runaround” broken into nonsense components, “rundy-rundy-rundy,” and then some screechy strings. “What a love this is!,” lead singer Guy Villari exclaims. “You’re ruining everything!” They may have been Italian, but the kvetching was familiar to the Jewish boys as well.

Maresca was a ’60s song hustler (another one of those guys, Billy Meshel, also died recently, and Reparata and The Delrons — see? — did one of his charmingly bizarre songs, “That’s What Sends Men To The Bowery”), and through his association with Laurie Records, he had cuts with The Chiffons (the atypically lyrical “Up On The Bridge”), Carlo from The Belmonts, The Four Coins, Bernadette Carroll. A nice sampling of those tracks can be found on The Laurie Records Story Vol. 2: The Ernie Maresca Years, and on the Ace comp pictured above. But the songs that seal his legacy are “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer,” songs that Dion seized with a fervor that no one has matched in more than a half-century of covers. For years, I’d wondered what a Bruce Springsteen version of “The Wanderer” would sound like, since that early solo-Dion sound, with growling saxophone and feeling of busting loose, straining to make an assertive noise, was so much a part of the Springsteen ethos. He finally took a shot at it in 2009 in Des Moines, Iowa, of all the unlikely places. It was a sign-request, and the E Street Band don’t quite have a handle on it — it takes almost three minutes to figure it out — but Van Zandt unlocks it, and by the second verse, it begins to jell, Clarence Clemons takes his solo, Bruce yells ‘Bridge!” and they bring it to a cool wrap-up. Honestly, has Springsteen himself written lyrics as Springsteenian as Maresca’s? “And when I find myself fallin’ for some girl/I hop right into that car of mine and drive around the world.” Is it any wonder a generation of boys heard that song and, as loserish as they may have been in actual life, felt empowered?

rags, blues, jugs and kazoos


This weekend marks the semicentennial of the moment that plunged the silver dagger into the heart of the purist folk revival, when Bob Dylan and his recruits plugged some instruments into amplifiers at the Newport Folk Festival. That’s what Newport Folk ’65 is best-known for, that act of heresy, or commercial capitulation, or outright perversity, but a lot of other acts played that weekend as well, including a group of musicians who showed up this week at City Winery in New York City to revisit the more playful side of ’60s folk. Jim Kweskin, Geoff Muldaur and Maria Muldaur (then Maria D’Amato) of Kweskin’s Jug Band were joined by John Sebastian of the shorter-lived Even Dozen Jug Band (he was calling himself John Benson), and the set skipped merrily through the garden of joy that we now call “Americana”: blues, folk, ragtime, fragments of western swing and le jazz hot, songs by the Mississippi Sheiks and Leiber & Stoller. The assemblage did “The Sheik of Araby” from the 1920s, and songs that Sebastian wound up adapting for the Lovin’ Spoonful: “Fishin’ Blues,” “Blues In The Bottle,” “Wild About My Lovin’,” and it was obvious that The Spoonful weren’t the only group who took things from the Kweskin outfit (or other jug bands); The Band and the early Grateful Dead swam in the same musical stream, and if The Beatles didn’t pick up “Sheik of Araby” from Kweskin, it’s safe to guess that they found it through the parallel U.K. trad and skiffle scenes, like the mid-’50s version by Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen and Skiffle Group.

The music of the Kweskin band — and the Even Dozen, where Maria D’Amato started, and Steve Katz did time before joining The Blues Project — was a kick because it pulled in songs from everywhere: Maria found “I’m A Woman” through Peggy Lee, the band’s one album on Reprise put Lead Belly right next to Ellington, and right from the start, on the Jug Band Music LP, they did Chuck Berry’s “Memphis.” That crazy-American-quilt approach continued through the albums Geoff and Maria made as a duo — Skip James, Hoagy Carmichael & Johnny Mercer, Chuck Berry all represented on Sweet Potatoes — and the first batch of albums Maria did on her own. Mention her to most people and they might know “Midnight At The Oasis” from her solo debut, but that 1973 album’s warmth, sexiness and breadth of musicality is a wide-ranging delight, from Ry Cooder’s playing on the opening track, Jimmie Rodgers’ “Any Old Time,” to the swing and sway of Dan Hicks’ “Walking One and Only” to Mac Rebennack’s sultry horn arrangements. On the follow-up albums, she clicks with big band charts by Benny Carter, finds lovely Wendy Waldman and McGarrigle songs, channels The Boswell Sisters, has Hoagy himself come in for some harmony, sings Smokey Robinson and Allen Toussaint.

Maybe it was the “jug band” tag that limited these groups. Face it, if that band in San Francisco with Jerry Garcia, Pigpen and Bob Weir had stayed Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions (doing songs the Kweskin band did like “Viola Lee,” “Crazy Words, Crazy Tune,” “Beedle Um Bum” and “Memphis”), I’m fairly sure they wouldn’t be selling out a Chicago stadium in 2015. Sebastian figured out that those tunes from the Kweskin songbook (and “On The Road Again,” which the Even Dozen group did) could be electrified and repositioned as rock and roll (as Sebastian mentioned to Geoff Muldaur on stage, his band’s version of “Fishin’ Blues” actually sold some copies), and Katz’s next move after the Even Dozens was to be the sweet-voiced folk singer in an electric blues band. The Youngbloods’ debut had some of the feel of the Kweskin band, with the ’20s-sounding “Grizzly Bear” and songs by Blind Willie McTell and Mississippi John Hurt. “Jug band” was an antiquated notion, and really, the Kweskin outfit wasn’t that jug-heavy. What if they’d have stuck it out and become like an east coast Mamas & Papas?

’67’s Garden of Joy looks like a try at branding the band’s good time music (a Spoonful tag line, but surely applicable here also) as sunshiny flower-pop (“The Jim Kweskin Jug Band Doing Their Things In The Garden of Joy), but even the savvy Warners-Reprise marketing and art direction crew couldn’t trick people into buying an album of old-timey acoustic jazzy-folk (the first track is an ode to smoking reefer, but in a hipster rather than hippie way). So it got lost, quietly, in the haze of that psychedelic year when banjos and violins, even in the skilled hands of Bill Keith and Richard Greene, were slightly out of time. The three original members of the band did a few songs from that album at their show the other night, the title track, Maria’s spotlight “I Ain’t Gonna Marry,” “The Sheik of Araby,” “If You’re A Viper,” as well as other jug band staples like “Stealin’.” One cool thing about being slightly out of time: you never have to worry about being out of fashion.

the endless saga of sleepy jean


Micky Dolenz has a nightclub act now, and there were moments at the show at 54 Below, a midtown NYC cabaret, that were like Al Pacino in Danny Collins, seniors at ringside swaying and singing along with the catchier oldies. There was a big fan-club contingent, and they didn’t miss a lyric on even slightly-more-obscure Monkees tunes like “Goin’ Down” and “Randy Scouse Git.” It’s a fun show, probably not unlike when the pop singers from the late ’50s and ’60s would book a prestige gig at the Copa and prove their versatility by throwing some standards into the mix (Dolenz brought “Some Enchanted Evening” and “But Not For Me” to the party, so Rodgers & Hammerstein and the Gershwins shared time with Boyce & Hart and Goffin & King). I’d have liked to hear a few more ’60s things, maybe “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone” or “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” (he did do “As We Go Along” from Head), but I guess for those you have to go to a Monkees gig. Something for certain: Micky now has possession of “Daydream Believer” and will have to sing it at every performance he gives for the rest of his life, and people will feel a swell of giddiness and the urge to at least lip-sync along. It’s a happiness bubble, this little tune, and now that Davy Jones has gone, taking with him that hi-dee-ho shuffle imitated by everyone from Axl Rose to Tina Fey, no one will ever walk into a Dolenz show and think, “I wonder if he’ll do ‘Daydream Believer’?”

It was never a likely thing, but I was sort of hoping that “Daydream Believer” would be bequeathed to Mike Nesmith, and that he would do it more the way the late John Stewart, who wrote the thing, used to do it, as reflective country-folk, less flighty and feathery than it was in the hands of Davy. I realize I am quite alone in this, that “Daydream Believer” by The Monkees is a pure late-’67 pop confection, perfect in its way, and that when people think of it, what they’re hearing in their heads is Davy’s show-biz pizazz. But that was always my least favorite element of The Monkees, Davy’s self-aware twinkle, the way he’d caress his moony ballads with a fake sincerity designed to make the girls get all dreamy-eyed. He could be passable on “Valleri” and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,” but there wasn’t a song he did with the group that I didn’t think Micky would have done better, and Micky wasn’t even the most talented Monkee. Still, everyone loves “Daydream Believer,” and why not? It’s got that “Cheer up, sleepy Jean!” hook and so-simple verses, and that baroque-psych-pop instrumental bridge. Like “Happy Together,” it sounds more cheery than it actually is lyrically; when Stewart wrote it, the line went “Now you know how funky I can be,” to undercut “You once thought of me as a white knight on a steed,” and the small adjustment changed the whole tone. In Stewart’s versions, the “daydream believer and a homecoming queen” might have had a few hopes busted. But that would have never been a single that spent a month at #1.

“It started out as a suburbia trilogy,” Stewart said in a 2006 interview you can find online through The Archives of Music Preservation. “I almost scrapped it.” Then he played it for Chip Douglas, who was producing The Monkees. Douglas told him the song was green-lit, with the provision that “funky” be changed to “happy.” Stewart said, “That doesn’t even make sense.” But Stewart had played the song for We Five and Spanky and Our Gang and both groups (or their A&R people, more likely) passed on it, so he agreed to let Davy sing “happy,” and off it went. Without “happy,” The Monkees wouldn’t have cut it. With “happy,” it’s a song that Patti Smith, The Edge, Shonen Knife and Paul Westerberg have performed without a scintilla of distance or irony, because what the song conveys (as opposed to what it says) is innocence and optimism. You hear the opening notes — most of the time it’s kicked off with some variation of the piano intro that Peter Tork does on the single — and it sweeps you in, like it could be a Paul McCartney or Brian Wilson song.

It must have been a huge single in Japan, because if you poke around looking for “Daydream Believer” YouTube videos, you’re going to come across many Japanese versions in all genres (random list: Takeshi Hosomi, Ken Yokoyama, Oatmeal — this one is like speed metal-pop with hints of The Bee Gees’ “New York Mining Disaster 1941” for some reason — Sakura Gakuin). One of the sweetest is a slow, bilingual version by Priscilla Ahn, who finds the melancholy in the melody, gives the song wistful longing that you don’t usually find in it, not in the awkward too-literal covers by Anne Murray and Boyzone, the utterly hapless take by Susan Boyle, the shameless corn of the version on Glee. For a moment at the Dolenz show, you might wish he and his piano player would pare it down, reduce the pep factor, get back to the song in there that peeks through in Ahn’s version, or when Patti Smith does it, or even in Westerberg’s cracked live versions. But that will never happen, because for one thing, the audience will simply not stand for it. What they want is the release of serotonin that comes as the seven-bah-note lift-off bangs into the hook and they get a chance to join in. In Danny Collins, Pacino’s title character books an intimate gig to try out some new, reflective material, and all his audience clamors for is “Hey Baby Doll,” the song that gets them waving their arms in unison. Until he hangs it all up, “Daydream Believer” is going to be Micky Dolenz’s “Hey Baby Doll.” He’ll never escape it. It’s his inheritance, his destiny to look into the eyes of fans, point the mic at them, have them clap on the wrong beat and keep, for all time, encouraging sleepy Jean to cheer the fuck up already.

is anybody going to san antone?


I kicked in some cash yesterday for a crowd-funded documentary about Doug Sahm directed by Texas music maven Joe Nick Patoski, and the same day’s mail brought me a copy of a new CD on the hypercool label The Numero Group, Royal Jesters: English Oldies, so musically-geographically I’ve spent the last 24 hours in and around San Antonio. One thing about acquiring and absorbing music on a pretty constant basis is that I’m always amazed by how much I don’t know, all the music that somehow has managed to slip past me, things that I have to guess I would never discover through all the sophisticated algorithms of streaming services like Apple and Spotify. What use are they to me? Are they going to connect the dots between Sahm and the guy who sang lead for the Royal Jesters, named Dimas Garza, who also for a while had a doo-wop group called Dino & The Dell-Tones? Will they point me in the direction of Garza’s other efforts in The Lyrics, or introduce me to Rudy & The Reno Bops or Charlie & The Jives, groups I never heard of until yesterday and whose music I would be stunned to find on any streaming service? There is more access to more music in more places than there ever has been, and yet somehow there are all these holes in my knowledge, and believe me, I’ve been paying intense attention for a very long time. How did I never stumble on the Royal Jesters before, or know they did versions of The Five Keys’ “Wisdom of A Fool” (which isn’t even on the new compilation), Evie Sands’ (by way of Trade Martin) “Take Me For A Little While,” and The Royalettes’ (via Teddy Randazzo) “I Want To Meet Her”? English Oldies is filled with surprises: it’s got a Tex-Mex sexy grind, elements of soul and doo wop. Their “What’cha Gonna Do About It” isn’t anything like the Doris Troy original, or The Small Faces’ cover; it’s like, what?, Pachuco-Garage-R&B? Is that a thing?

The very informative Royal Jesters booklet has a photo of an ad for a “Big Easter Show & Dance,” from what year I don’t know (’63?), but it sure looks like it was fun. The RJ’s are down at the bottom of the bill. Up on top are Joe Barry and someone I hadn’t heard of named Big Sambo, so of course I had to find out more, so with a few clicks I learned that, A) Mr. Sambo’s group was The House Wreckers, B) He worked with the legendary Huey F. Meaux, and C) the B-side of his Eric single “At The Party” was Meaux’s “The Rains Came,” which I know from The Sir Douglas Quintet. I can’t explain why finding stuff like that out is such a kick for me, but there you have it. On the row right under the pics of Clay and Big Sambo is one of Kenner Records recording artist Doug Sahm (billed with his group The Starmarks and identified by what I guess was his San Antonio hit “Two Hearts In Love”). Also on the show, the aforementioned Charlie & the Jives and Rudy & The Reno Boys. Another internet search, and that’s how you can easily blow a day.

One place I checked out calls Garza “one of the unsung heroes of sixties Chicano Soul,” which is a really specific thing to be, and from what I can discern, it appears to be true. He was all over the place as a singer and writer, jumping from label to label and group to group (there are tracks on the English Oldies album by something named Dimas III), but never had any crossover success, so it’s up to enterprising folks like the good people over at The Numero Group to give his career some context, provide a starting point. And to people like Joe Nick to try and kickstart (literally) interest and recognition of Doug Sahm who, unlike Garza, did have broad, or at least broader, impact. I wrote recently about the insane amount of memorable music from 1965, that explosive cultural moment when hit records were flying at the listener from all directions, when “The Tracks of My Tears,” “Wooly Bully” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” all made perfect pop sense. In the spring of that year, “She’s About A Mover” by The Sir Douglas Quintet was released, fake-British name attached (no one was fooled for a second), and I’d say it didn’t sound like anything else on the radio, but one thing about ’65 was that almost nothing sounded like anything else. I suppose it was kind of like Sam The Sham & The Pharaoh’s smash, and they both made their debut on the Billboard singles chart the same week, but I don’t remember anyone talking about The Great Farfisa Invasion of April ’65.

Part of the Sahm Kickstarter campaign involves a petition to get him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in that regard I wish them well but I’m not holding my breath. That organization’s blind spots are not so much “spots” as massive blackouts. How can you explain to people who might barely remember “She’s About A Mover” and possibly “Mendocino” (some Rock Fan friends of mine tuned that out as soon as they heard Sahm’s opening sung line, “Teeny-bopper, my teenage lover,” not because they thought anything inappropriate was going on, but because “teeny-bopper” = “bubble-gum”) that Sahm’s freewheeling eclectic approach to roots music of all stripes was soulful and significant, that his records — from his earliest singles to his albums with the “supergroup” Texas Tornados — were wildly fun? You can start anywhere, with the Quintet’s Tribe records, or ’71’s The Return of Doug Saldana, or the Atlantic albums, and be won over. One of my favorites is his 1989 solo album Juke Box Music, an affectionate exploration of the music that shaped him. He could have played some of these songs (“I’m A Fool To Care,” “Talk To Me,” “Buzz Buzz Buzz”) at that San Antonio show where he shared the bill with the Royal Jesters. Whatever happens Hall of Fame-wise, thanks for all the beautiful vibrations.