bigger than a cadillac


“With the hesitations in the beat, in the singing, matched by the words fitted to them — ‘You drivin’ me back’ — the record isn’t easy to listen to, because it doesn’t quite make sense.” - Greil Marcus, The History of Rock ’N’ Roll In Ten Songs, on The Crickets’ “Not Fade Away.”

Of all Buddy Holly songs, “Not Fade Away” is the one that, appropriately, given its title, has never vanished. It’s around more than “Peggy Sue,” more than even “That’ll Be The Day” and “Everyday,” and maybe (baby) that’s due to what Marcus suggests, its inscrutability. Or maybe because it’s real simple to play, with that Bo Diddley beat that anyone can lock into, and that can be locked into anything. It’s the little black dress of rock songs, always appropriate, always stylish, easily accessorized. What doesn’t it go with?

Any other songwriter probably would’ve gone with “you know my love won’t fade away,” and deprived the world one of its great pieces of phrase-making (and David Chase’s movie of its title). Would it have lasted as long? You can zip over to Wikipedia and see a nutty cluster of artists who have covered the song, but the list itself is incomplete, not only in terms of quantity.

Sure, it’s one of the few songs on earth that’s been tried out by The Stones, The Beatles and Bob Dylan, and that’s impressive enough. And it’s been in The Grateful Dead’s elastic repertoire forever. Hand someone — James Taylor, Warren Zevon, Greg Kihn, Joe Ely, Stephen Stills — a guitar, and there’s a fair chance “Not Fade Away” will emerge after some exploratory strumming. The Band used to do it when they were Levon and The Hawks, and it resurfaced as a jam at Watkins Glen. The Byrds sang it on Shindig, The Knack at Carnegie Hall, Patti Smith at Montreux, Jack White outdoors in a parking lot at SXSW.

The early Stones sprinted through it in a head-snapping 109 seconds, a band in a hurry, and Dead-medleys incorporating it have lasted over a half-hour. People keep circling back to it, weaving it into personal rock history in different ways. Some are easy to assemble: Springsteen’s been prone to merging it with his own Diddley homage “She’s The One,” and on the ’78 tour, “Gloria” was thrown into that mix quite a bit. Los Lobos have done it in tandem with their cover of the Dead’s “Bertha,” which also makes sense. But then it’ll pop up in the wackiest places. For Deep Purple, it came pounding out of “Highway Star.” Queen threw a version in between “Another One Bites The Dust” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” At the Madison Square Garden concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Simon & Garfunkel did a shaky couple of minutes of “Mrs. Robinson,” brushed that away, and seamlessly glided into “Not Fade Away,” easy as that.

The Beatles, as Marcus points out in his “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” chapter, kept revisiting Holly. When you hear the bare, early takes from Beatles For Sale, Rubber Soul and Help, it’s so clear how close to Holly songs they are. Then, when they got together for the Get Back sessions, looking for anything, a scrap, to agree on, they inevitably turned to Buddy. There’s a segment when they stick “Not Fade Away” — Lennon on lead vocal — between Duane Eddy’s instrumental “Cannonball” and Dee Clark’s “Hey Little Girl.”

There’s a small, less than a minute, fragment of John Lennon singing “Not Fade Away” into a home recorder at the Dakota, fiddling around with it for a while, and then you hear Yoko, from elsewhere in the room. She’s been humming along, barely audibly. “That’s a good one,” she tells John. “Buddy Holly,” John says. He strums a little more, and the tape runs out.

kid stuff


In the Memphis-music documentary Take Me To The River, a pint-sized, confident child who goes by the name Lil’ P-Nut raps with Otis Clay and gets instructions in phrasing from Bobby “Blue” Bland. In the debut novel 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino, a nine-year old girl, out way too late, gets on stage and wails on “Blossom’s Blues” by Blossom Dearie. In the new Greil Marcus book The History of Rock ’N’ Roll in Ten Songs, he tells how producer George Goldner tormented 16-year old Arlene Smith of The Chantels in the recording studio to get those otherworldly, anguished performances that never have been surpassed, not by Aretha, Mavis, Gladys, anyone.

And speaking of which, Aretha cut her first roof-raising gospel sides when she was fourteen, the same age Etta James was when Johnny Otis discovered her. Mavis was 17 when The Staple Singers’ “Uncloudy Day” came out on Vee Jay, and Gladys Knight won on Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour (the ’50’s American Idol) when she was seven. The Pips were formed a year later.

Whenever I hear about how “young” some new pop singer is, even the ones who come out of the Disney or Nick factory, I wonder why I’m supposed to be impressed. Brenda Lee was aptly monikered Little Miss Dynamite at 13. Two of the Wilson brothers were in their teens when The Beach Boys broke. Alex Chilton and Steve Winwood were ridiculously gifted sixteen year old soul singers. And then there were Frankie Lymon and Michael Jackson. You hear “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?” and “I Want You Back” even now, and they knock you back. The bass voice of The Teenagers lays out a few seconds of fanfare, like “here it comes…,” and then Frankie and the group counter with six “ooh-wah”s, and from that point it’s Frankie’s show. What does a fourteen year old know about being a fool in love?, one might wonder, but only if one has completely forgotten being fourteen.

“I Want You Back” came out in the fall of 1969, around six weeks after Woodstock, a few months after the moonwalk. Michael was eleven years old. So much on the single is going on at once that it takes a while to adjust (not now, when it’s been in the air for 45 years, but when it first came on the radio). Greil Marcus writes about “There Goes My Baby” in The History of Rock ’N’ Roll, how so many people described it as hearing two radio stations at once, playing different records. It changed the direction of The Drifters, and Atlantic Records, and pop-R&B music, and the way top 40 records were produced and arranged. I was too young to be tuned to the radio when “There Goes My Baby” hit the airwaves, so it didn’t sound at all strange when I eventually caught up with it. I’d heard enough Phil Spector records by then, and later Drifters hits like “Up On The Roof.”

That’s an element of rock history that’s a slippery thing: where you were, how old you were, what stations you listened to. You have to go backwards and stay in the moment at the same time to get a sense of how everything fits together. What if you heard Bobby Vee before you were aware of Buddy Holly, who had already been gone for a couple of years when Vee’s “Take Good Care Of My Baby” came out? You just hear it as another song. You might not know who Gerry Goffin and Carole King are, but then you connect them to The Shirelles and The Drifters.

So you might hear The Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back,” initially, as souped-up Motown. New Motown, the way The Temptation’s “Cloud Nine” was, Motown keeping up with how pop-soul was being scrambled up by Sly & The Family Stone. The intro itself is thrilling, how each instrument enters with a little overture to what it’s going to be up to as the song progresses. You could loop that twenty seconds ten times and it would be a hit single before Michael utters a word. Except he doesn’t utter a word, exactly; he comes in like Frankie Lymon does, “ah-huh-huh-huuuh” (that’s the best I can transcribe it), is his “ooh-wah,” and then, “Let me tell you now!” Finally, the start of a story: “When I had you to myself, I didn’t want you around.”

I can’t think of anyone else who made an entrance so dramatic: “Let me tell you now!,” Michael explodes and you had to listen because what could come out of this kid’s mouth? What could be the trigger for this? Well, it builds and builds, and it’s like there are two different choruses. One starts “Oh baby give me one more chance…” and the second one “Now since I see you in his arms, I want you back!” His brothers sing the title hook. Michael doesn’t say “I want you back” until the song is on its fade (around 2:50 in). Maybe that’s why some people think the song is called “One More Chance.” Might as well be. Then again, it might as well be “All I Want, All I Need” as Michael screams on the bridge.

Now “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?” and “There Goes My Baby” and “I Want You Back” are enshrined, as they should be, as part of the long saga of doo-wop and Atlantic and Motown, how the music progressed. You could build a book around those three songs, the people involved, from Morris Levy, George Goldner and Richard Barrett to Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, Leiber & Stoller and Ben E. King, to Berry Gordy and the rest of the Motown crew. Or you could listen to them, and if you’re old enough, remember how startling they were when they came on the radio.

whom do you love: bo diddley in academia


One thing we can all agree on, I think, is that devoted fans of Bruce Springsteen don’t take his music seriously enough. From the sidelines, you might get the idea that all he is is someone who writes songs and performs them with a certain amount of enthusiasm and at some duration, and that it would be a pointless exercise to examine the body of his work too closely. Do you yearn for a more academic, deeper examination on the effect that songs like “I’m Goin’ Down” have had on our culture and civilization? Well, you can download Vol. 1, Issue 1 of “Boss: The Biannual Online-Journal of Springsteen Studies.”

Among the debut issue’s articles: Another Side of “Born in the U.S.A.”: Form, Paradox, and Rhetorical Indirection; Whose Hometown? Reception of Bruce Springsteen as an Index of Australian National Identities; Springsteen as Developmental Therapist: An Autoethnography.

I’ve been wondering when someone was going to get around to the use of Rhetorical Indirection, specially on the Lucky Town album, so I’m hoping the author will touch on that. And that Australian Identity Index thing could be very insightful, especially if it dips into how New Zealand’s Identity Index plummeted on the last tour, when he only did two dates in Auckland and didn’t play “Candy’s Room” at either one.

Autoethnography was the working title of the Tunnel of Love album before Springsteen’s management urged him to change it, similar to how Annie Hall was originally called Anhedonia. Springsteen even made a joke about it in a 1988 interview: “Don’t knock autoethnography, It’s sex with someone I love.”

I’ve been so inspired by this new Online-Journal that I’m starting one called “Bo: The Biannual Online-Journal of Diddley Studies.” Because honestly, Mr. Diddley has been too long in the shadows. I volunteered to teach a course, “Introduction to Bo-Oiolgy,” at N.Y.U., but was turned down, so with this venture, I can explore all the topics I’d planned to lecture on.

Issue One:

Forty-Seven Miles of Barbed Wire: Metaphorical Exaggeration and Braggadocio. Was Bo Diddley’s house really made from the hide of rattlesnakes, with a human skull chimney? Why, at only 22, did he not mind dying? We will explore here the use of outlandish claims and outright fabrications in the process of seduction.

Shut Up, Woman (aka Hush Your Mouth): Sexism in Chicago Rhythm & Blues, Manifested In Objectification of the Female. This article is a collaboration between an eminent Bo-Ologist and a Professor of Feminist Studies, and will primarily contrast two well-known Diddley songs, “I’m A Man” and “Pretty Thing,” where “man” is literally spelled out, but woman, even in the context of a marriage proposal, is a “thing.” Also discussed: can someone, mathematically, be “500% More Man”?

Bo Diddley Is A (Fill In The Blank): Self-Identification as A Chameleon State. Who (or what) is Bo Diddley? On his first hit single, he sang about a character named Bo Diddley, and on subsequent recordings he announced “Bo Diddley’s A Gun Slinger,” “Bo Diddley Is An Outlaw,” “Bo’s A Lumberjack.” He also said he’s a “Road Runner.” One album is called Bo Diddley Is A Twister. The song “The Story Of Bo Diddley” — this time Bo is himself — claims that he was born playing a gold guitar. That can’t be right, can it?

Surf, Sink or Swim: The Rebranding of Bo Diddley, or Why Is There An Album Called “Surfin’ With Bo Diddley”? And while we’re at it, this article will explore the British Invasion-Diddley connection, chart how Diddley’s “London Stomp” borrows liberally from The Rolling Stones’ version of the Lennon & McCartney song “I Wanna Be Your Man,” itself a Diddleyesque knock-off, and include an online poll to select the worst ‘60s U.K. cover of a Diddley song. Early front-runner, “Cops and Robbers” by Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders.

sing it again, slim: bacall bewitches bogart


The actress Howard Hawks selected to play opposite Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not was a nineteen year old Jewish girl from The Bronx, and she wrapped her older leading man around her slender, cigarette-holding fingers. It was one of the most sizzling screen debuts in history, and made Lauren Bacall an immediate star. Not very long after that, Warner Brothers immortalized her in a Merrie Melodies cartoon, Bacall To Arms, directed by the great Bob Clampett, where the sultry siren is called Laurie Bee Cool. Which was perfect.

How many film entrances are as vividly remembered as Bacall’s cool portrayal of Slim? Even Christopher Moltisanti, in a Hollywood-set episode of The Sopranos, praises her performance (albeit identifying the film as The Haves and Have Nots). And what young actress in this century could you imagine shimmying up to a piano and bewitching everyone with her husky voice, her mischievous glance, her sexual confidence (Scarlett Johanssen, maybe)? For years, we heard that Bacall’s singing in THAHN was dubbed (by Andy Williams!), but that always smacked of malarky to me, and the rumor’s been satisfactorily debunked.

Her best work was in the decade from the mid-’40s through the mid-’50s, and she was mostly absent from the screen all during the 1960s. If you’ve ever seen her and Henry Fonda caught in the misery trap as second-billed comic foils in the Tony Curtis-Natalie Wood vehicle Sex and The Single Girl (1964), you might be relieved that she was spared too many embarrassments. But it didn’t matter so much, because there was usually The Big Sleep or Key Largo or even Young Man With A Horn on TV, and Bogart had somehow become a posthumous, next-generation icon, and his legend was inseparable from hers.

Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca has the reputation, and To Have and Have Not is often placed on a lower tier, but I’ve always preferred Hawks’ movie. I know, I know…Bergman, and “As Time Goes By,” and all those snappy lines, and Bogart’s big speech at the end. I’m not immune. But even though it came after, THAHN feels fresher and, yeah, cooler. Hawks keeps everything at speedboat pace, and as people have pointed out for the past seven decades (the film’s 70th anniversary is in a couple of months), you can watch Bogart and Bacall succumb to each other in 100 minutes of screentime. In Casablanca, Rick walks off into the fog with Captain Renault, after depositing Ilsa on that plane. In To Have and Have Not, Bacall sings the Hoagy Carmichael-Johnny Mercer song “How Little We Know,” then sways across the bar to Bogart, and off they go. Romance as sacrifice — the whole “hill of beans” theory — or romance as palpable chemistry? Easy call.

Bacall also has chemistry with Carmichael (as Cricket, the piano player); he lets her sit in with his combo, and here’s where I have to admit that my concept of an ideal evening is watching a long-haired dame slither over to a piano and sing something like “Am I Blue.” I’m a sucker for that stuff, much to my detriment in many cases. At such moments, I regret that I don’t smoke cigarettes, although I’d have to go into the street to light up, which would spoil the scene (the whole topic of The Use of Cigarettes in Howard Hawks Films is something I would have done a paper on in grad school). Bacall — remember, only nineteen, never acted on film before, not a singer by vocation — is magnetic and alive with possibility. No wonder Bogart was hooked.

“Maybe we really belong together but, after all, how little we know.” “How Little We Know” is a modern, adult pop song, and Bacall sells it: maybe you’re meant to be mine, maybe it’s just for a day, who can tell? The song never became a standard like “As Time Goes By,” and maybe that’s for the best. It’s been covered, but not definitively: you can’t point to the version by Nat “King” Cole, and go that’s the one. And you aren’t likely to stumble on a pale rendition by a retro crooner (there’s no Rod Stewart take, no Manilow or Buble that I know of). It belongs to Lauren Bacall for all time.

everyone knows it’s windy: the psychodramas and the traumas of the association


I just got an e-mail from City Winery announcing that The Association are coming in to play. I did a quick mental calculation, factoring in the members who are deceased or otherwise unavailable to show up, and figured that The Association probably has two of the original guys, about average for groups from their era (over time, more than thirty people have been in the band, which might be some kind of record for any pop group that isn’t Chicago: even The Byrds didn’t go through personnel so promiscuously).

Still, two veteran non-drumming members might even be enough to get me down there since, after all, it’s about the songs, and I never had the chance to see them live back when they had hit after hit on the radio starting with “Along Comes Mary” (written by Tandyn Almer), a record that would be in the stack of 45s I’d play for anyone who wanted to know what the mid-‘60s sounded like. Handclaps, harmonies, hooks, a flute solo, druggish freewheelin’ lyrics that tumbled trippingly: “When vague desire is the fire in the eyes of chicks whose sickness is the games they play.” A line that says “Summer of ’66” as vividly as the crush I had on a girl named Ellen Platnick at whatever bungalow colony we were spending our vacation. But I digress…

One year later (you might know it as The Summer of Love), The Association were the first group to hit the stage at Monterey International Pop Festival. That was on Friday. By Sunday, their shiny melodic pop was a quaint relic of a simpler time, as band after band took over the playground to create chaos and mayhem. The Who, Hendrix, Big Brother & The Holding Company, The Electric Flag, Jefferson Airplane. What was The Association after Jimi, Janis and Otis and Keith Moon and Mike Bloomfield? They started their set with a would-be anthem called “Enter The Young.” How hopeful and optimistic, how instantly dated. At the end of that summer, they released their biggest single ever, “Never My Love,” a wedding song for the ages. They only had one top 10 single after that.

So they were one of the initial wave of L.A. pop groups sneaking marijuana references into the Top 40, their singles were easy to sing along to (try getting “Cherish” or “Windy” out of your brain), and they did some genuinely cool things: they cut “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” (on Jubilee Records) years before Led Zeppelin, followed up the smash ballad “Cherish” with a piece of stoner whimsy called “Pandora’s Golden Heebie Jeebies,” did a pretty rockin’ garage-folk version of Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings” (available on the Where The Action Is! boxed set). and I have to say that with “Everything That Touches You” they made a single (with the Wrecking Crew, I surmise) that is everything Brian Wilson would’ve wanted to do in 1968. It’s said that Jimmy Webb offered “MacArthur Park” to The Association before cutting it with Richard Harris, and that it was going to be a side-long song suite. It’s also been said that that story is nonsense.

Another distinction: they made the best record based on Philip Roth’s fiction (“Goodbye Columbus;” I don’t think Wings’ “Letting Go” is named after the Roth novel, and although Al Kooper says “Magic In My Socks” is a homage to Alexander Portnoy’s private habits, it’s a little too oblique). Until Springsteen makes a concept album about American Pastoral, The Association hold that claim. Doesn’t that have to be Hal Blaine on drums?

They were precisely on the dividing line, clicking exactly on time to ride the wave of L.A. sunshine pop and be invited to open the ceremony of Monterey. But when “Windy” and “Never My Love” were back-to-back giant singles in mid-’67, cultural events were conspiring to separate pop from rock, AM from FM, square from hip, straight from stoned. These things matter less now, and even then, there were a lot of people who were listening to The Monkees’ Headquarters and Cream’s Disraeli Gears. I don’t know whom to expect at City Winery, but I know what to expect: some spontaneous slow-dancing to “Never My Love,” audience participation on the chorus of “Windy,” a request for the other song from Goodbye Columbus, “So Kind To Me (Brenda’s Theme),” because who doesn’t remember Ali MacGraw diving into the country club swimming pool?

a touch of tabasco


Uptown pop-soul had a flourish that no other scene had. It moved to a groove that made heartache feel sexy, made love feel rapturous. Part of it was the Latin pulse, part was the Jewish angst and sentimentality, part was its roots in R&B, blues and doo-wop, all swirling together in a big, dramatic rush. Think of The Jarmels’ “A Little Bit of Soap,” which like The Corsairs’ “Smoky Places” borrows from the sound Leiber & Stoller gave to The Drifters: the way it starts with rhythm and what might be the portentous rattle of a kettle drum, and then the singer comes in singing the title, and you think, soap? But then it builds and builds, and by the end of the second verse (“the hurt that I feel as I go through the lonely years”), it’s all anguish. The soap is useless, the pain too embedded.

Or The Exciters’ “Run Mascara,” a record so texturally alive, so infectious, so filled with tsouris. Or “Killer Joe” by The Rocky Fellers. It’s only a few degrees from “Twist and Shout,” itself a few degrees from “La Bamba,” and the surface is kiddie-pop, a squeaky-voiced Filipino teenager complaining that he can’t compete with the eponymous Mr. Joe in the dancing department: “Look at how they Wobble! He’s the best in town!” But it’s so freakin’ catchy, and of course it was a hit.

All those songs were written or co-written by Bert Berns, an underground music-biz legend who had a hand in so many classic above-ground smash hits (“Hang On Sloopy,” “Twist and Shout,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Tell Him.” “Here Comes The Night”), and who is having a multi-tiered belated round of recognition: Ace Records in the U.K. has released a pair of excellent CD’s of his songs and productions; Joel Selvin has published Here Comes The Night, a vivid and deeply researched biography; and a musical about Berns’ life and work, Piece of My Heart is playing Off-Broadway, with enough sizzling performances and more than enough outstanding songs (some well-known, some not) to make anyone want to dig deeper into this guy’s too-short story.

Piece of My Heart places Berns’ musical awakening in Havana before the revolution, and those scenes have a kick, but he didn’t have to stray far from his home in The Bronx to pick up the Latin Thing, or to figure out that the Hispanic-Jewish-Black coalition was pop-soul gold. One of early-R&R/doo-wop’s most successful industry hustlers was George Goldner, who also ran the Tico label focusing on Latin music. At the height of the big ‘50s Mambo craze (around ’54-’55), Tico released the transcendently goofy “Mambo Shevitz (Man O Man),” by The Crows with Melino and his Orchestra, a recording that can be found on the recent 2-CD set It’s A Scream How Levine Does The Rhumba, a fascinating compendium of how Latin and Jewish music interacted.

It was a whole meshuganah mini-genre, Latin-based Mambo-specific doo-wop: “Ay Si Si (Mambo)” by The Dootones, “Mambo Sh-Mambo” by The Charms, “Mambo of Love” by Nolan Strong and The Diablos. “Loop de Loop Mambo” (The Robins), “Cool Mambo” (The Sheppards). So the recipe was already imbedded in early R&B. Goldner had The Flamingos do “Besame Mucho.” The Ravens did “Green Eyes (Aguellos Ojos Verdes).” What the next generation (Leiber & Stoller, Spector, Bacharach, Berns, Jerry Ragovoy) did was refine and expand, making the strings an atmospheric piece, incorporating the baion influence, adding polish and sophistication without sacrificing soul. The R&B singers Berns worked with were stellar, Ben E. King and Solomon Burke, of course, but also Erma Franklin, Freddie Scott, Garnet Mimms, Hoagy Lands (portrayed as a luckless also-ran in Piece of My Heart), and Brenda Reid from The Exciters.

It’s been a puzzle to sort out Berns’ legacy. He wrote and even recorded under different names (Bert Russell, Russell Byrd), worked with a bunch of collaborators, and although he did a lot of work for Atlantic and then had his own Bang Records, many of his one-off productions were scattered on small labels. Based on the discography in Here Comes The Night, I’m still punching around to discover records I hadn’t known about before (“White Gardenia” by The Cadillacs, about a love-depressed matador who bites the dust), and re-listening to some I hadn’t heard in a while (one I love, Linda Laurie’s completely bonkers “Jose He Say,” is in my iTunes library and I wish I could share it, but it’s vanished from YouTube). Those aren’t in Piece of My Heart, but one of my favorite Berns songs is, “Look Away,” a Garnet Mimms record that combines everything great about that era when Berns had an office at 1650 Broadway, when a wave of writers, producers and arrangers were creating seductive, sad Latin-influenced songs for great soul singers to sing.

watching her, sadly


She was everywhere. On transistor radios faintly heard at poolside, drifting on the charcoal smoke at backyard barbecues, on the hi-fi at make-out parties. By contrast, anything else that summer was a kind of racket, a liberating noise: the British groups, the car songs, the girls in love’s thrall (“People Say”) or in lonely despair [“(Remember) Walking In The Sand”]. As so many have noted, it was the first summer after Dallas, people wanted to dance and scream and drive fast. That June, Rudi Gernreich’s invention, the topless swimsuit, was featured in Look magazine, and although no one anyone knew was brazen enough to test it out in public, the idea of its existence was enough. It was a topless beach of the mind. You hear “The Girl From Ipanema” now, and you can still smell the Coppertone, still feel the grains of sand in your Keds, still see the older girls in their daring bikinis. They were the girls from Ipanema; if they knew their effect on the boys — and they must have — they didn’t show it. They walked on by, and were watched so sadly.

That’s all she did. She walked. The story goes that Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Morales first saw her one day when she was on her way to school, then on the beach, and were in a trance. You can imagine that she had the coltish, blasé beauty that only certain nineteen year old girls possess (some sources say she was fifteen), and so they wrote a song about her, “Garota de Ipanema.” The song bounced around for a couple of years in little-known (but quite nice) versions until Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto cut it, with an essential assist from Gilberto’s (and later Getz’s) wife Astrud, who’s the observer, the narrator, the translator (singing the English lyrics by Norman Gimbel).

This is what is going on, she explains: this girl who walks to the sea as though listening to a private rhythm of a samba is catching everyone’s eye, but one guy’s in particular. He can’t approach her, and she doesn’t notice him, and that’s the song. Gilberto’s vocal and Getz’s saxophone seem tuned to the same sensual frequency. He matches her hush with the softest sax solo that’s like the musical embodiment of a summer wind. Or like the Eric Rohmer film, Le Genou de Claire, which has the same type of sun-kissed laziness and admiration from afar.

And with all the commotion that was going on around her, phase two of Beatlemania and all that followed in those insane six months since they landed at JFK, The Girl From Ipanema was the object of desire. The Getz/Gilberto album was in everyone’s home; it was the hip LP for parents to have, and the single was on the radio all the time. When the Grammys came around, “The Girl From Ipanema” was Record of The Year (other nominees: “Downtown” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand”), and Getz/Gilberto won Album of the Year, the first time a jazzy album took that prize. Bossa Nova, that intimate. slinky sound from Brazil that had begun to whisper in American ears with Getz and Charlie Byrd’s “Desafinado,” was now a full-blown craze.

In Portuguese, part of the lyric is literally translated like this:

Ah, why am I so lonely?
Ah, why everything is so sad?
Ah, the beauty that is out there!
The beauty that is not just mine
that also goes by alone

It’s not the loneliness you feel when you’re alone; it’s the loneliness of seeing “the beauty that is out there!” and not being able to grasp it. “The Girl From Ipanema” is sexy — that melody is a slow-motion reverie — but it’s also about that wide gap. You could say, I suppose, that Jobim and Morales were voyeurs, the way they followed the girl (Heloisa Pinto was her name) around and captured her golden youth for posterity, but nothing about the song feels creepy, not even when sung by a man, as it has been over and over again (Sinatra most gracefully, and also by singers as diverse as Alex Chilton, Chris Montez and Lou Rawls). The only times the song stumbles is when a female singer does it as “The Boy From Ipanema,” which is just dopey. As James Woodall writes in his terrific essay in Lives of the Great Songs, the gender flip “makes nonsense of the lyric…This is not a song that survives a sex change.”

That hasn’t stopped women — Ella and Sarah to Peggy and Dionne (and up to Diana Krall) — from asking us to visualize a tall, tan guy walking to the sea. It’s as though they don’t have a clue what makes the song so hypnotizing, why it became such a sensation sung by a woman. Astrud (and the girls who stick to the script, like Cher and Amy Winehouse) isn’t a part of the story; she’s evoking a scene, watching the men watching the girl, maybe from another spot on the beach, this lovely, oblivious girl, and the guys’ unspoken admiration. The Girl From Ipanema has no male equivalent. She walks alone.

crazy man crazy in love


Is there a single History of Pop? And even if there is, can it be explored in fewer than 600 pages? Give Bob Stanley extra credit simply for taking on the mission: Yeah! Yeah Yeah!: The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyonce (in England, the subtitle is The Story of Modern Pop) is a sixty-year dash through the highlights, the genres, trends and icons, and what’s best about isn’t its thoroughness — how could it possibly round up everything that mattered? — but its view through Stanley’s lens. He’s doing the broad-strokes thing, but there’s nothing about the book that pretends to be anything else but personally-framed history.

He likes The Turtles, so he finds appreciative things to say about The Turtles, but he doesn’t even mention Tommy James and The Shondells. His version of the Story has no room for Leonard Cohen, Barry Manilow (oh, ok) or Nick Lowe (so much for Pure Pop For Now People), or blues-rock from the United States: Mayall and Fleetwood Mac are given their due, but not Butterfield or The Blues Project. And Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! might be the only source that calls Air Supply’s run of singles “classic American-rock hits,” and files Aerosmith and Queen under Metal. There are a number of inaccuracies: Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich weren’t signed to Aldon Music, Goffin & King didn’t write James Darren’s “Goodbye Cruel World,” John Hammond didn’t produce Dion (or sign Miles Davis). Gaffes like those slip by because no one takes ten seconds to check.

Stanley could have written this as an Encyclopedia of Pop; like David Thomson’s massive The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Sixth Edition that came out this spring and weighs in at a daunting 1100+ pages, Stanley’s book is filled with insight, descriptive acumen and taste that can be contrarian. He also makes sharp connections, comparing Bowie bestowing Mott The Hoople “All The Young Dudes” to Brian Wilson letting Jan & Dean have “Surf City.” But unlike Thompson, Stanley is after a bigger concept, and I’m not sure it was the best idea to give Americans the “Bill Haley to Beyonce” tag. It’s accurate enough, given his perimeters (one could argue that Haley wasn’t the start of the pop era, but you have to begin somewhere, and you might as well give Beyonce the last word for now); still, “Modern Pop” is what’s on the docket here, and the narrative moves forward and circles backward to find precedent and try to thread it all together.

I now know more about Acid House and Electropop and Shoegazing (and even Glam) than I did before I picked up the book (although I’m not compelled to seek out the actual music), and I agree with Stanley that many post-Monterey west coast bands didn’t have a whole lot to say (“their albums remain largely unloved, with blues jams and freaky guitar workouts extended to fill the empty inches on the vinyl”; guess there’s a reason Quicksilver Messenger Service don’t show up in this tale: not his bag). And I don’t recall any prior music history name-checking Johnny Restivo and The KLF. That’s what makes it fun. Bear in mind that this is a U.K.-slanted overview, so Ready Steady Go but not Shindig!, Rave magazine but not 16, Wonder Stuff but not The Sir Douglas Quintet.

By the turn of the century, Stanley says, “Rock — the vocal/guitar/bass/drums setup pioneered by the Crickets, Shadows, Beatles and Led Zeppelin — had become as fossilized and ancient as Dixieland jazz was in 1952. It had run its course.” Declarations like that reminded me of one of the first “serious” books on rock and pop I ever read, Nik Cohn’s 1970 Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom (yawningly titled Rock From The Beginning in the U.S.), a lively, irreverent and opinionated survey of rock’s first fifteen or so years. Pop was in still its adolescent phase then, but already it felt as though something was over. 1970 was a lull rock year, for sure, and I’d started looking around for other things; it’s when I got deeper into country, blues and jazz (cementing my love for Monk and Haggard). Cohn couldn’t have guessed what was coming (could anyone have predicted Punk?), but I have a hunch Stanley might be on the money about Rock being past its expiration date. Has this decade given the world a single new rock band to get excited about, a rock artist as vital as Beyonce, Taylor Swift or even Kanye West?

By the time Stanley gets to his epilogue, the pop terrain has changed so completely. Of course it has. There’s a longer distance between Haley’s “Crazy Man Crazy” and Bey’s “Crazy In Love” than between Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ On The Ritz” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” Stanley’s point, I think, is that it doesn’t matter, especially in the era of Spotify and YouTube. You can love Del Shannon and Prince, The Del-Vikings and Run-DMC, The Ronettes and TLC. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!’s pop world is sprawling and inclusive, the way some of our own music collections are.

where you going with that guitar in your hand?


Reason to be grateful for the internet: there is a website ( that is devoted to the subject of “Hey Joe.” Just “Hey Joe.” That might seem excessive for a song that consists of three verses, no bridge or chorus, and is short on what one would consider narrative detail. As you probably are aware, this is what occurs in the song:

Someone, a friend presumably (there’s the casual “Hey” greeting), runs into Joe, who is exercising his Second Amendment right to open-carry a firearm. As any friend might, the guy asks Joe what’s up with the gun. Joe says he’s planning to shoot his woman for reasons of infidelity. This isn’t a spontaneous crime of passion: he’s pretty matter-of-fact about it, and doesn’t seem to care that his friend is now an accessory before the fact.

Next scene, jump cut to another encounter, and um, “Hey Joe, I heard you shot your woman.” What happened between verse one and verse two we can only surmise. It involved bloodshed. Joe, still kind of nonchalant, well, yeah, I told you I was going to, she was a slut and so forth. Third verse, and the friend, instead of being completely freaked out, asks Joe if he has any plans to travel (“Hey Joe, where you gonna go?”). Joe thinks maybe Mexico is a good idea, to avoid being hanged.

It all feels like a sketch of an old-timey murder ballad, something that’s been around forever and is based on a real-life incident, like all the hundreds of variations on “Stagger Lee” and “Frankie and Johnny.” You do a YouTube search and expect to see some 1930s 78 spinning around called “Hey Joe Retribution Blues,” but although some people (like Tim Rose) have claimed that it’s a traditional song, it was written in the early ‘60s by a folk singer named Billy Roberts, and picked up steam in ’65-’66 when a gaggle of west coast groups stomped through it: The Leaves, Love, The Byrds, The Standells. As Lenny Kaye asked rhetorically in the liner notes of his Nuggets comp, ‘Would any anthology album of the mid-sixties be complete without a version of ‘Hey Joe’?” Of course not. Like “Gloria” and “Farmer John,” it’s a seminal text, and would have a place in the history books even if its life stopped there, which it didn’t.

“Hey Joe” was performed twice at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, once on Saturday by The Byrds, who stumbled through it, and then again on Sunday by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and in less than 24 hours the song went from being a primitive garage-folk-rock anthem to a dark, dense tour de force. Hendrix slowed it down to a menacing pace, and that’s when it became the ‘60s “Stagger Lee.” We still didn’t have any fleshing out of the story: we have intent, motive and aftermath, but anything about the woman, her lover, or even the person interrogating Joe is still a mystery. Where is this taking place? Did Joe kill the guy sleeping with his woman as well (at least one version says he did)? Did he have to shoot his friend before fleeing across the Mexican border, because he knew too much?

Hendrix’s guitar filled in some blanks: it’s angry and aggressive and deliberate. I hear it and I imagine more than one bullet. From the moment after Hendrix’s recorded version, with floating female backing vocals, came out as The Experience’s debut single, it changed shape and became a kind of challenge. There is almost no guitar-slinger worth a damn who didn’t want to instrumentally tell the story. A very partial list (Hey Joe Versions lists more than 1700 covers, of which I’ve heard maybe 100): Duane Allman (a few times, with Wilson Pickett, King Curtis and The Allman Brothers Band), Jimmy Page, Johnny Winter (R.I.P.), Slash, Eric Clapton, Marc Ribot, Roy Buchanan, Billy Gibbons, Steve Cropper, Jeff Beck, Jeff Healey, David Gilmour, Alvin Lee, Richard Thompson, Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan, James Burton. It’s a Shootout at the Hey Joe Corral.

There are so many good “Joe”s: Johnny Rivers with the Wrecking Crew, Patti Smith’s deconstruction, Willy DeVille, Lee Moses’ soulful stretch-out where Moses starts off by talking about how Joe was a friend of his, and blames the whole mess on somebody not minding his own business and telling Joe about his woman’s indiscretion. What was Joe supposed to do? Moses says he tried to stop Joe (is he on a witness stand?). There are versions in French and Spanish, and instrumentals (like The Folkswingers on the Raga Rock album), and Black Uhuru’s reggae take, and Fever Tree’s 13-minute “Hey Joe” suite that transitions midway between the post-and-pre-Hendrix approaches.

There was one “Hey Joe” that got away, for me. It was the 1992 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. The Jimi Hendrix Experience were getting in, and Johnny Cash, The Yardbirds, Booker T. & The MG’s, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Sam & Dave and The Isley Brothers. If ever there was a “Hey Joe” moment, it was that night. I wanted to hear Cash sing “Hey Joe” like he sang all those songs about violence and mayhem, in that steady, authoritative voice, and there were those Yardbirds guitarists and Cropper and Ernie Isley, and those soul singers. And Keith Richards, The Edge, Neil Young, Robbie Robertson and B.B. King were on hand. They could have played “Hey Joe” all night long.

discovering keira knightley on stanton street


With Begin Again, coming not long after Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, the professionally adrift former A&R executive is now officially a movie Type, like the single woman with an ill-defined job in media, or the reluctant superhero. It’s unsettling to see your own situation portrayed on the screen, but it could be a lot worse, I suppose. Instead of Mark Ruffalo or Paul Rudd, my cinematic equivalent could be played by Kevin James, so for that I’m appreciative. As preposterous as Begin Again is at times (there is no record company employee in charge of Hospitality, for starters), it hit a nerve.

There was no way I was going to miss this. Ruffalo plays a near-obsolete A&R hotshot who is having a very bad day, stumbles into Arlene’s Grocery for another drink, and happens to be there just as Keira Knightley is persuaded to sing one song, accompanying herself on guitar. In a flash, he’s creating an imaginary band playing an augmented (and not particularly inspired, but he is drunk) arrangement of her touching little song. And off they go on an indie adventure that takes them to on-location recording sessions all around New York City (most of the songs are by Gregg Alexander). They spend quite a bit of time in my Union Square neighborhood. It was eerie. Not because I ever randomly, during a night of drinking and club-hopping, happened to see Keira Knightley. That’s the A&R fantasy: that something special will come from out of nowhere. The big accident.

Begin Again — its much better original title was Can A Song Save Your Life? — was written and directed by John Carney (Once), and he has a rose-colored, Nick Hornby-ish notion about music and its healing powers, its capacity to bond. What he’s done here is make a rom-com without the rom (and not a lot of com either, except for Adam Levine’s beard that makes him look like a Woody Allen rabbi). It’s built like a rom-com, complete with a montage of its stars bopping through Times Square to the punchy sound of Sinatra singing “Luck Be A Lady,” then listening to Dooley Wilson’s “As Time Goes By.” Each is in personal distress: she’s been cheated on by Levine, he’s divorced from Catherine Keener, and in too many movies their needs and connection would be sealed at least by one round in bed, followed by a “we-shouldn’t-have-done-that” morning of regret. Not to get over-confessional here, but I’ve had artist/A&R guy relationships with much younger female artists, and there is a type of intimacy involved, and long boozy nights, but that was never part of the equation, and I was pleased to see that Carney didn’t throw his attractive movie stars into a scenario that includes nakedness.

At once point, Ruffalo and Knightley visit one of his big-deal discoveries, played by CeeLo Green (with CeeLo and Levine in place, all that’s missing is Blake Shelton and some oversized chairs) to ask for help with the project, and of course CeeLo comes through. And this is basically what he tells Knightley: sometimes when a music guy like Ruffalo has a bad stretch of luck, it’s easy to lose sight of who he really is. I’m not sure how Carney got to that insight, but that line jabbed me, and it was moments like that that kept me with the film through its scenes of cliched nonsense. Early on, there’s a discussion about the relative authenticity of Bob Dylan and Randy Newman that lands with a thud, and the al fresco sessions made no musical sense (at Columbia, we recorded an EP with Susan Cagle in the subway, so I’m well aware of the acoustic challenges). And if you see it, you might want to skip the scene under the end credits that seems tacked-on and completely crazy (Weinstein!).

I don’t know why it’s so difficult to get the music business right in the movies. Maybe it’s too undramatic, the process, the grind. You have to romanticize and invent. I know all the things that Begin Again messes up. But near the start of the film, Ruffalo is driving to work (a stretch right there) and playing demo CD’s in his car, giving each one a few seconds to make its point, muttering to himself in frustration. That’s what an A&R day is like. Show me something. One song makes him so angry that he tosses the CD out the window. I know a west coast A&R guy who used to do that, except his car had a sunroof. He’d fling the offending CD skyward, and the artist’s dream of success with it.