the voice of warner-reprise, r.i.p. stan cornyn

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“No one is born sophisticated. It’s a place you have to crawl to, crawling out of hayseed country, over miles of unsanded pavement, past Trouble, past corners and forks with no auto club signs to point you, till you get there and you wake up wiser.”

That was on the back of an album jacket, and the album, it must be said, is not a memorable one. It has a couple of hit singles that everybody knows, and couple of Beatles covers, songs by Dylan and Brian Wilson and Jagger & Richards. The playing, by the guys and gal who played on almost everything recorded in Los Angeles in those days, is fine as far as it’s asked to go, and the young lady on the cover is, as was said, a babe. Mod horizontal stripes top and bottom, red leather mini-skirt and matching boots (the album is called Boots, so your eye is drawn to them, after taking in the way the girl is staring straight into the camera). There is nothing that exceptional going on, except you flip the cover over, and you read.

“A young fragile living thing on its own in a wondrous-wicked-woundup-wasted-wild-worried-wisedup-warmbodied world. On her own. Earning her daily crepes and Cokes by singing the facts of love. Her voice tells as much as her songs. No faked-up grandure, her voice is like it is: a little tired, little put down, a lot loving.”

It doesn’t matter so much that the vocalist doesn’t, couldn’t, live up to that stream of writing. She would have to be a modern Mildred Bailey, a pop Patsy Cline, Tuesday Weld with vocal equipment to match her vixenish allure, to be truly worthy of those words, but never mind: she’s Nancy Sinatra, the daughter of the boss of the label, and the single is unmistakably a fine thing, and if she requires some eloquent prose to give her mystery that a version of “Flowers On The Wall” can’t contain, what of it? The album jacket is a marketing work-of-art, and no one, no one, filled the back of a 12″ X 12″ cardboard space with a more deft touch than Stan Cornyn, who passed away this week.

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He made label hype seductive and witty, insightful and novelistic (some of his notes for the elder Sinatra are like miniature short stories). As head of Creative Services for Warner Brothers-Reprise Records, he came up with ad campaigns that made the efforts of other record companies seem creaky, tired, obvious. Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, The Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Van Dyke Parks, The Fugs were advertised with copy that acknowledged their commercial limitations (and whatever we now know of Young, Mitchell, The Dead, they were not initially an easy sell). And you could find, on the backs of albums you might not otherwise consider buying by, say, Dean Martin, The Anita Kerr Singers, Trini Lopez, Harpers Bizarre, prose that on its own was worth lingering over in the easy listening racks of your local department store record department. Cornyn also invented the WB-Reprise double-LP Loss Leader sampler, and in the very first one, Songbook, gave out the phone number to reach him and his colleagues in Creative Services: 213-843-5115.

His notes for the masterpiece Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim are as great as they need to be to reflect the genius within. They begin thusly:

“It had begun like the World Soft Championships. The songs, mostly by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Tender melodies. Tender like a two-day, lobster-red Rio sunburn, so tender they’d scream agony if handled rough. Slap one of his fragile songs on the back with a couple of trumpets? Like washing crystals in a cement mixer.”

Here’s something I’ve said to people who have asked me how I got into the music-business racket: I believed I had one skill that could earn me my keep and pay my rent and buy me Buitoni macaroni and Chips Ahoy cookies; I could write some. And all I did the livelong day was listen to music. How could this possibly add up to anything? Stan Cornyn helped me figure it out. Not personally: I didn’t call his number at work. But I read the liner notes and the ads and the artist blurbs in those first few Loss Leaders, and thought, this might be the way. There was someone at a record company who did this stuff??? I could write the essays or the ads, maybe? And lo and behold, I did. And copied Cornyn as closely as I could without getting sued for tone-plagiarism. I wrote a good number of album notes, and moved from publicity writing to advertising writing at Arista Records, and so on.

What Cornyn taught me was that selling through words could have literary merit, that trying to convey, in an advocating sense, what the music within the sleeve, or the music being pitched, had to say, was something almost noble. His work was conversational, with exceptional pitch for detail, and behind it was the idea that one way to cut through the noise of hype was to do it quietly, with humor. Another way was to invite people to enter a Pigpen look-alike contest, or win a date with a Fug, or please, please, check out these Van Dyke Parks and Randy Newman albums because we have all these unsold copies lying around. Warner-Reprise was by far the coolest record label of the late ’60s and early ’70s. By far. And not only because the A&R was brilliant, although it surely was, but because Stan Cornyn’s touch, so distinctive, was the key to the label’s public sensibility: it was where Jimi Hendrix and Tiny Tim, Petula Clark and Frank Zappa, The Vogues and Fleetwood Mac, Sinatras and Everlys, were all embraced, and when we sent in our $2 for those Songbook and Record Show samplers, we never knew what we might discover. They were Cornyn’s doing, along with all those classic ads and notes that, really, somebody needs to combine in one volume. Often, they were the best thing about the album.

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are you ready for this?

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There’s a “new” Jackie DeShannon album floating around called All The Love: The Lost Atlantic Recordings, about half of which turned up on an expanded edition of her Atlantic debut Jackie, the rest consisting of tracks she cut in 1973 with producer Tom Dowd that until now haven’t been compiled. There were a number of attempts at Atlantic to emulate the creative success of Dusty In Memphis, albums with Lulu, Cher, even Carmen McRae, and they all fall short of that bar, but the biggest disappointment was how the label just couldn’t figure out what to do with Jackie. That label debut should’ve been a love match, DeShannon’s maple-honey voice and the production of Jerry Wexler, arrangements by Arif Mardin, cut in Memphis with guys like Reggie Young, Mike Leach and Bobby Emmons, but despite sweet and funky versions of John Prine’s “Paradise,” Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break A Heart” and Van Morrison’s “I Wanna Roo You,” it may have been just a bit too relaxed, too pastoral, where Dusty’s album had been vibrant, shimmering pop-soul.

Her other Atlantic album, Your Baby Is A Lady, has one terrific track, Bobby Charles’ “Small Town Talk,” but otherwise steers into the adult-contemporary lane and cruises along breezily. All The Love fits somewhere in between, and you can see why most of the music sat on the shelf: “Easy Evil,” “If You Like My Music” and “Good Old Song” have an unassuming, standard-issue early ’70s post-Tapestry singer-songwriter casualness. The four cuts produced by Van Morrison in ’73 — first issued on the Jackie…Plus collection — are nice to have back in circulation, but DeShannon-at-Atlantic should have resulted in at least one Dusty-esque classic album, and this one isn’t that.

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A shame, because it makes it a little bit harder to explain how it is that so many people, myself included, have a deep and durable affection for Jackie DeShannon. Her discography has historically been a shambles, although in recent years it’s begun to get sorted out with reissues, singles anthologies and two terrific compilations on Ace U.K. of her songs that’ve been covered by artists as diverse as Brenda Lee, The Searchers, The Carpenters, The Ronettes, Irma Thomas, The Byrds, Marianne Faithfull. You can’t sum her up; she’s like a female Gene Pitney or Bobby Darin, jumping confidently from genre to genre, forming fascinating alliances: she’s co-written with Randy Newman, Jack Nitzsche and Jimmy Page (and I’m fairly certain that’s something only she can claim), been backed up by Byrds, cut folk songs and standards and Brill Building songs (her biggest hit was Bacharach & David’s “What The World Needs Now Is Love”), played Monopoly with George Harrison, co-starred in a movie with Bobby Vee, wrote “When You Walk In The Room” and “Bette Davis Eyes,” cut the original version of “Needles and Pins.” She’s been a rockabilly chick and a chanteuse (on a song called “Francoise”). Like Darin was, she’s a gifted mimic who is also an innovator, throwing divergent elements in a blender to make a pop smoothie. Jackie helped invent folk-rock with “Needles and Pins,” “Come and Stay With Me,” “When You Walk In The Room” and “Don’t Doubt Yourself Babe,” and her Laurel Canyon album was one of the earliest examples of laid-back L.A. shawl-pop (there’s a DeShannon song on Jackie called “Laid Back Days,” but it was 1972, so cut her a break, ok?).

The same year Tapestry came out, Jackie released Songs, featuring some of the same musical characters (Danny Kortchmar, Russ Kunkel, that crowd), and in a way her narrative parallels Carole King’s, except that DeShannon was recording her own albums all through the 1960s, and always seemed on the cusp of stardom, especially after the Bacharach-David song clicked in ’65, and then again when her own co-written “Put A Little Love In Your Heart” cracked the top 5 in ’69. Why couldn’t she string together more hits? Was she too hard to define, this girl who could flip effortlessly from Ray Charles (“Drown In My Own Tears”) to Bob Wills (“Faded Love”), who was early on the Dylan train (three of his songs on her debut, Nitzsche-arranged LP), who was part of the Los Angeles pop scene with Glen Campbell, Sharon Sheeley, Herb Alpert, Delaney Bramlett, P.J. Proby (see the songs on the Sheeley Songwriter collection)? The albums that came out on Liberty and then Imperial were grab-bags of random singles, tracks recycled from one LP to another, to the point where you could never be sure whether you were buying DeShannon songs for the second or third time. What would be really helpful is a chronological boxed set of all her ’60s recordings, with her songwriter demos, because the ones that have circulated are first-rate ’60s pop (again, like Carole King’s).

If I had to pick two ’60s Jackie DeShannon albums to start with, they’d be Breakin’ It Up On The Beatles Tour! and Are You Ready For This?. The first one is self-explanatory, in a way, but it implies a live album, which it isn’t. It was a way to capitalize on the fact that Jackie was one of The Beatles’ opening acts, and it has a batch of her best earliest singles — “You Won’t Forget Me” is a highlight — and Randy Newman’s “Did He Call Today Mama,” two Newman-DeShannon songs (“She Don’t Understand Him Like I Do,” “Hold Your Head High”), “Should I Cry” (DeShannon & Nitzsche). On Are You Ready…, Jackie does three Bacharach & David songs, and elsewhere (especially on the self-penned title track) does an incredible simulation of the then-red-hot Supremes. If you’ve ever wondered how Diana Ross would have sounded singing Goffin & King’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” with the Wrecking Crew, this is where you’ll find out. You have to dig to crack all the pop mysteries of Jackie DeShannon, piece together her formidable legacy, but the music is out there waiting to get its hooks in you.

drifting through the city: the urban soul of ben e. king

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Side One of The Drifters Golden Hits LP is either the first or second best song-sequence of uptown-soul in the known universe, depending on whether, at any given moment, you decide that Side Two is superior. Ben E. King, who passed away this week — and it’s a bad week when the singers of “Louie Louie” and “Spanish Harlem” die within days of each other — sings five of the six songs on the A side: “There Goes My Baby,” “Dance With Me,” “This Magic Moment,” “Save The Last Dance For Me” and “I Count The Tears,” and together they represent the apex not only of The Drifters: Phase Two (Phase One being the reign of the more ethereally soulful Clyde McPhatter, who has the distinction of stepping aside in groups for Jackie Wilson and Ben E. King), but a high point in the history of Atlantic Records as a label, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller as producers, and Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman as songwriters. Of those six songs, four are by Pomus & Shuman, and they are sweeping and rapturous in a way that no other pop music was on the radio.

Cultural history was made with the release of “There Goes My Baby,” the initial single by this edition of The Drifters: it’s something so simple and so complex that you could write a dissertation on it, and people sort of have. You can read about it in books about the Brill Building, Atlantic, Leiber & Stoller, and in Jerry Wexler’s autobiography. It sounds like madness, the echo on the drums, the searing strings, the unusual song structure, the abrupt change of course on the bridge. It’s R&B, certainly, or post-doo wop at least, but what R&B is so flamboyantly arranged, what doo wop travels so far from the streetcorner to this tower of sound?

Every King obit leads with “Stand By Me,” his most well-known hit as a solo artist, and that’s expected. Before and after that record, however, his voice defined an urban romanticism. The swirling, scene-setting cascade of strings stops on “This Magic Moment” for an instant to let him break through with the title phrase: he’s singing about a kiss, a kiss that opens up an entire world of possibility, and he might as well be reading a passage from The Great Gatsby, so overtaken, his heart leaping with fulfillment. How many singers have made fools of themselves (I’m looking at you, Jay Black) trying to capture the exhilaration within “This Magic Moment”? How can you listen to “Save The Last Dance For Me” and not feel the ache within King’s generosity? There’s an element of faith in this song, in Pomus’ perfect lyrics. She’ll be back, it says. But how can you not hear a hint of doubt? Who knows what might happen on the dance floor, where people can get swept away?

King wasn’t in The Drifters for very long. There aren’t rare or lost album cuts or B sides where he sings lead. There’s that cluster of singles, each one perfect, and then he was off on his own. Flip Golden Hits over, and that’s what went on with The Drifters after he left, and you can argue whether “Up On The Roof,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Under The Boardwalk” and “On Broadway” are only as brilliant as the singles from the King era. What’s inarguable — meaning I simply won’t stand for any dispute — is that “Spanish Harlem” is a triumph. It was written by Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector, and it turns up on almost every compilation of Spector productions, but what it is is a Leiber & Stoller production with a Stan Applebaum arrangement. In my fantasy Brill Building version of West Side Story, “Spanish Harlem” is a centerpiece, because let’s be honest, it’s the kind of record The Jets and The Sharks would really be listening to. It’d be coming from transistor radios in the playgrounds, playing at the gym dance. There’s the seductive Latin sway, the plain-spoken poetry.

There are so many Ben E. King records that I love: Pomus & Shuman’s “Here Comes The Night,” “Souvenir of Mexico” (the 45 version) and “Ecstasy,” the ones he did with Bert Berns (“Around The Corner,” “It’s All Over,” “The Way You Shake It”), the singles “Don’t Play That Song,” “Seven Letters,” “The Record (Baby I Love You),” some of the standards on Sings For Soulful Lovers (“What A Difference A Day Made,” “It’s All In The Game”), Leiber & Stoller’s “Yes,” “Where’s The Girl” and “On The Horizon,” Pomus & Spector’s gripping “Young Boy Blues.” I know he was born in North Carolina, but he moved to New York City as a child, and more than any of his contemporaries in the Atlantic soul clan and its auxiliary (Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Don Covay, Solomon Burke, Joe Tex), he sounded like the city. The records didn’t feel like the ones cut in Memphis or Muscle Shoals; they had a New York mixture of grime and sophistication, they felt lit by streetlamps. I think what was so striking about “There Goes My Baby,” “Spanish Harlem” and “Here Comes The Night” was that you were hearing all of the city at once, high culture and low, Latin music and R&B, the promise of romance and the crush of disappointment. Of all the great ’60s soul men, Ben E. King belonged to us.

leaves of red and gold

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Near the end of his set in Nashville the other night, Bob Dylan sang a song from his most recent album. Not a remarkable thing, usually, hardly worth commenting on, except for a long while, Dylan’s concerts have been the same nineteen songs in the same running order, no night-to-night variations, but he signaled to the band and they proceeded to do an aching version of the standard “Autumn Leaves.” It was unexpected, brief, spellbinding. You get used to being thrown curves by Dylan; in a way, the whole current set is a curve, reliant as no set by someone who’s been recording for more than a half-century could reasonably hope to be on songs from the last decade or so. But if you’d asked me to make a wager, I wouldn’t have put cash on hearing Bob Dylan sing “Autumn Leaves” live. Now I have, and maybe it’ll be part of the setlist from now on (we’ll see if he brings it out in New Orleans tonight*), or maybe that was that. That was Dylan’s live “Autumn Leaves.” Who knows?

The song has been around since the 1940s, first as the French “Les Feuilles Mortes” (the dead leaves), music by Joseph Kosma, lyrics by Jacques Prevert. Then Johnny Mercer wrote English lyrics, and this simple, wistful lament has been endlessly covered, instrumentally and vocally, ever since. Jazz musicians from Miles to Coltrane to Getz to Jarrett to Baker to Evans have explored it at some length and depth, Nat “King” Cole tackled it in Japanese, and there have been lyric-less rock covers by Link Wray, Mickey Baker and Santo & Johnny. Leiber and Stoller produced a version by Cornell Gunther of The Coasters, Little Willie John released it as a single on King, and vocal groups like The Mills Brothers, The Tymes and The Regents have harmonized on it. Most French singers of note (Yves Montand, Juliette Greco, Edith Piaf, Françoise Hardy) have stuck to the dead-leaves original. And the list of pop singers who have watched the red and gold leaves drift by their window is extensive: Dylan might have picked it up from Sinatra — the songs on Shadows in The Night come from that songbook — but you can be sure he’s also familiar with the takes by Willie Nelson, Joan Baez (in French), Tony Bennett, Bing Crosby.

It’s about romantic loss. It’s about the passage of time, seasonal triggers. “The summer kisses, the sunburned hand I used to hold.” Mercer was so brilliant at that, the persistence of memory (“I Remember You”), the evocative power of nature. “Autumn Leaves” sits right beside his “Summer Wind” (“We strolled that golden sand”) as a study of how a change in the weather, a shift in the breeze, the color of leaves can send someone off into a sad spiral. The last line of “Autumn Leaves,” as sung by pretty much anybody (examples: Iggy Pop, Tom Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis) and especially by Dylan on the Nashville stage, is a blow to the heart: “I miss you most of all, my darling, when autumn leaves start to fall.” That’s another thing Mercer did better than any other lyricist, I think: bookend his stories, close them in almost-matching brackets. Think of “Fools Rush In.” First line: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Last line: “So open up your heart and let this fool rush in.” Or “Summer Wind”: “The summer wind came blowing in from across the sea” to the capper, “My fickle friend, the summer wind.” “Autumn Leaves” does that also: you see the leaves at the start, find out what they mean at the end.

Sinatra did “Autumn Leaves” on Where Are You, but of course it would have fit perfectly on September of My Years also. Because songs about memory and loss are also songs about growing old, time creeping along, the things we remember that we’d prefer not to, the things we try to cling to. There’s Bob Dylan, about to turn 74 next month, on a Nashville stage bringing so much gravity to “Autumn Leaves,” and a few blocks away at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum there’s an exhibit depicting through images, artifacts and music the scene-stirring impact he and Johnny Cash had on Nashville almost fifty years ago. You stroll around the museum, hear songs from Blonde On Blonde, John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline — all recorded in the same town he’s playing in — and see him on the debut of The Johnny Cash Show and think, well, sure: how far is the distance from “I Threw It All Away” to “Autumn Leaves”? He seemed a little nervous on that Cash show. “I once held her in my arms,” he sang. “She said she would always stay.” And the next night: “Since you went away, the days grow long.” The room was hushed, and then it erupted. The theater was so strict about cameras and audio equipment that the moment might not have been captured, but trust me, it was stunning.

(*Note: he did)

we sang dirges in the dark

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Manuscript of Don McLean’s “American Pie” sells for over a million bucks. “The draft that was auctioned is 16 pages, 237 lines of manuscript and 26 lines of typed text…including lines that didn’t make the final version as well as extensive notes.”

Some things in the original draft of “American Pie”:

1. In the first version, “The Day The Music Died” wasn’t in February. It was a random day in August when McLean misplaced his 45 rpm adapter and his records played all wobbly.

2. Fire, it turns out, was not “The Devil’s only friend.” The Devil was also friendly with Earth & Wind, but they snubbed him at a Hell Mixer.

3. “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick”: really about fitness guru Jack LaLanne.

4. Missing verse about Dino, Desi & Billy and Gary Lewis & The Playboys: (“The sons of laughter on Hullaballoo/One Italian, one half-Jew.”)

5. Note: “What rhymes with ‘doorstep’? ‘Poor schlep?’ ‘Dinah Shore-step’?”

6. On page 4, McLean scribbled other ideas for “coded” rock figures. “The Peacock [Jimi Hendrix] flamed in Monterey/While Soulman [Otis Redding] thought about the Bay/And Animals [Eric Burdon &] came out to play/The day the music died.”

7. McLean meant to say his “Levi’s” were dry. Oops.

8. Some parts are in capital letters, underlined, with “Nailed it!!” written in the margins. McLean was particularly happy, it seems, with “My hands were clenched with fists of rage!” And who can blame him? “Fists of Rage: also screenplay idea for rock-kung fu movie.”

9. Handwritten note on the bottom of page 12: “Too obtuse, maybe? Will anyone figure out refs to Janis, Fillmore, ‘Nam, Stones, etc.? Oh, screw it. If they’re confused, they’re idiots.”

ancient injuries and other bruises

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“This is a song for my man,” Joni Mitchell says, introducing ‘Willy” on The Dick Cavett Show on August 19, 1969. We take for granted that that’s what singer-songwriters do, poetically transpose the details of their relationships and give their emotions song structure. Critics called Joni Mitchell’s writing “confessional,” and she bristled at that (in later years, she bristles at almost everything, bless her contrarian heart), but that was because the whole singer-songwriter construct was relatively recent. People may have “known” when Frank Sinatra was musically torching over Ava Gardner based on the songs he chose and the way he sang them, and felt they could get a glimpse into Billie Holiday’s heart in her music, but you could also accept what they were doing as performing, interpreting the words of others.

There was a real “Peggy Sue,” and yet the song didn’t come packed with assumptions, that Buddy Holly really felt blue about someone specific. It was a pop song. Now when Taylor Swift writes a pop song, it’s like a bulletin about her dating life, and for some reason she gets shit about it, as though it wasn’t writers like Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon who drew up the plans for the Songwriters License and the connected rules (No. 3: “If we have dated more than four [4] times and engaged in romantic activity including, but not limited to, making out in public, attending a social event together and/or being photographed on a beach together by paparazzi catching us in an indiscreet moment, such events become the creative property of the party of the first part, to be used in any way he/she sees fit”).

Without the notion of the confessional singer-songwriter, no Blood On The Tracks, no Tunnel of Love. It may have begun with the early non-political songs of Bob Dylan (“It Ain’t Me Babe,” “Don’t Think Twice”), but at the time, the fact that that cluster of songs were “about” Sara Lownds wasn’t any kind of big deal. And Tim Hardin wrote a bunch of songs about Susan Moore, but I don’t remember anyone calling him “confessional.” It may well have been Joni Mitchell who got tagged with that first, and because Rolling Stone told us all about the guys in her life, it became easy to cross-reference songs and gossip and speculate, or proclaim with authority, who her “old man” was at a point in time, just like it is now with Ms. Swift. Does it matter? Oh, we might say, that song is about Graham Nash, but what difference does it make? Are all of Mitchell’s song lyrics going to be annotated with footnotes on websites like Genius, so history can contextualize whom she was sleeping with and the songs that came out of that particular relationship? Of course she was ticked off at the “confessional” label.

There’s a new Death Cab For Cutie album, the first since the band’s singer-writer’s marriage to singer-actress Zooey Deschanel cracked, and almost every article about it is reacting as though Gibbard is bringing us into the marital bedroom. He “opens up about ex Zooey Deschanel.” He “explores his breakup.” “Death Cab For Cutie finds austere beauty in a breakup.” There are lyrics like “Was I in your way when the cameras turned to face you?” And songs called “Ingenue,””The Ghosts of Beverly Drive” ( because L.A.: bad) and “You’ve Haunted Me All My Life.” The album is called Kintsugi, which the internet tells me has to do with a Japanese art using broken pottery. So maybe dishes were thrown in the Gibbard-Deschanel kitchen? Or metaphorical dishes? Maybe she should have struck first, but the last She & Him album was all covers, so critics couldn’t use it to interpret her marriage, and anyway, she’s moved on. In interviews, Gibbard says the inspiration for some of Kintsugi‘s material is “fairly obvious,” and then he backtracks a little: “The person I’m singing to is an amalgamation of people I came across living in Los Angeles. Being around people in entertainment who are fairly well-known, I noticed all these neuroses and psychoses.”

“Being around people in entertainment who are fairly well-known” is a sentence fragment worthy of a Clinton, a small tap-dance of evasion. It’s not as though we’re going to be scrolling through our mental list of intimate Gibbard contacts to figure out which “people in entertainment” he might be referring to. “You’re So Vain” or “You Oughta Know” this is not, although it is a sort of an early ’70s throwback to when everyone in Laurel Canyon was sleeping with one another and then you had to listen to a dozen albums on Elektra and Asylum to figure out the details of what was going on (the statute of limitations on “You’re So Vain” has to be up, doesn’t it? It was a comedian named David. Google away). Breakup albums can be brilliant, but I think it’s a bit unchivalrous to throw around words like “fairly obvious” and “fairly well-known.” How about, “I’m not going to comment on that. Listen to the album”? Or, “I’ll let the songs speak for themselves”?

One thing about Joni is that you didn’t have to be plugged into the database of her boyfriends for the songs to resonate. How many millions of young women had no idea whom she was dating in 1971-1972 when she released Blue and For The Roses? Or discovered the albums years, decades later when there was no internet and all those old Random Notes columns in Rolling Stone were long forgotten? I know Joni doesn’t want Taylor Swift playing her in a movie, and she’s entitled, but in so many ways, the gossip-as-criticism wave that follows Swift was Mitchell’s first. And I think Swift knows, as Mitchell does, that songs outlast boyfriends. They’re not “confessional singer-songwriters.” They’re writers.

sinatra wings it

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When each of my parents passed away, one obligation packed a wicked emotional punch: going through their collections of LP’s. That was the music of my pre-rock ‘n’ roll youth: Ella’s Verve songbooks and duets with Louis, Nat “King” Cole, Broadway original cast albums, Belafonte, Steve & Eydie, a little jazz (Shelly Manne playing tunes from My Fair Lady, that sort of thing). So much Sinatra. Dozens of Sinatra albums, in the worst shape of all, the spines frayed or taped, the vinyl etched with scratches. They were the most-played, by far, and there isn’t a note on any of them — A Swingin’ Affair!, In The Wee Small Hours of The Morning, Swing Easy! — that isn’t embedded under my skin, every smack of the Nelson Riddle brass section, the weepy Gordon Jenkins army of strings, Sinatra’s snapped-off phrasing (“Stars fractured ‘Bama,” love that). This was the pre-Reprise Sinatra, from the second half of the 1950’s, and I suppose if I’d been a bit older I’d have ignored them and been listening to what Alan Freed was playing on the radio, but all I knew were the albums in the living room cabinet, and the Sinatra-centric music being beamed from WNEW-AM.

It’s the year of the Sinatra Centennial, and the celebrations are beginning with an HBO doc, an exhibit of memorabilia, reissues, live tributes galore. I’m ready for a retrospective look at his career, so long as I never have to hear Some Nice Things I’ve Missed, and TCM skips over Dirty Dingus Magee. There were periods of terrible mistakes cinematically and musically. Some very poor records at the tail end of his tenure at Columbia Records under Mitch Miller, some incredibly lazy movies (Sergeants 3 comes to mind). But from the Dorsey years through She Shot Me Down (I prefer believing that his discography ends with that and not L.A. Is My Lady and Duets), there is so much music that deserves a re-listen. Watertown is a pop departure that has moments of real poignancy; the first sessions with Jobim resulted in one of the best albums in either gentleman’s career; and there are some great live ones: Sinatra ’57 In Concert, Live in Australia 1959, Sinatra at The Sands.

Sinatra’s Capitol run from 1954 to 1960 (there were a few albums after that, but he was watching the clock, itching to get off the label and do his own thing) was the era when my parents, and all their friends, from what I could gather when we’d trek out to the suburbs to visit expatriates from The Bronx, bought everything Francis Albert put out. Except for A Jolly Christmas From Frank Sinatra: my folks didn’t dig the holiday repertoire, I guess. All those albums with exclamation points: Swing Easy!, Songs For Swingin’ Lovers!, A Swingin’ Affair!, Come Dance With Me! (has any singer been more emphatic in an upbeat mood?). All those albums of self-pitying gloom: Where Are You?, Only The Lonely, No One Cares (has any singer worn his romantic scars so nakedly?). Right after that Christmas album with Jenkins, Sinatra went into the studio for the first time with arranger Billy May to cut a session of travelin’ music, and it’s strange to think of a #1 album (for five weeks) so iconic as underrated, but I think it is. It was on the Billboard album chart for almost a year and a half, its title song became a Sinatra anthem more sophisticated than “My Way” or “(Theme From) New York, New York,” and still, you don’t hear about it much. It’s sort of slipped away as the Capitol Years became more identified with either Riddle or Jenkins.

But listen to it: Come Fly With Me (why no exclamation point?) is a jet set album, a collection that predicts the Kennedy years, a romantic, devil-may-care travelogue: let’s split! let’s wing it, baby! let’s get away from it all! It has moments that swing, and some of Sinatra’s finest ballads (“Autumn In New York,” “Moonlight In Vermont,” “April In Paris”). At the very first Grammy Awards, it lost to Henry Mancini’s The Music From Peter Gunn for Album of the Year, but that was just the first indication that the Grammys were almost never going to get things right (in fairness, among Come Fly With Me‘s competition was Only The Lonely, so the Frank vote was split, and NARAS made it up to him the next time for Come Dance With Me!, the second Sinatra-May LP).

Let’s take a boat to Bermuda/Let’s take a plane to St. Paul/Let’s grab a kayak/To Quincy or Nyack

The centerpiece of the LP is “Let’s Get Away From It All” by Matt Dennis and Tom Adair, an invitation so hip and adult. It’s like a musical representation of the cover (or vice versa), an illustration straight out of Mad Men. Frank’s date is out of frame, but he’s got her hand (there’s no ring on it), and his thumb is pointing over his shoulder to the waiting aircraft. In the song, he’s selling the trip: “Let’s go again to Niagara, this time we’ll dig the Fall.” Smooth talker. It could have been the album’s lead-off track, but it isn’t: Come Fly With Me is bracketed by Sammy Cahn-Jimmy Van Heusen songs, the title track and the finale, “It’s Nice To Go Trav’ling,” where Frank takes us home. The liftoff of “Come Fly With Me” is a thrilling thing, and Cahn’s lyrics have a sexy snap: “Weather-wise it’s such a lovely day/Just say the words and we’ll beat the birds down to Acapulco Bay.” Props to Sammy for “weather-wise.”

And for the whole “It’s Nice To Go Trav’ling” lyric, because, come on, “It’s very nice to just wander the camel route to Iraq” is rhythmic and clever, and when it’s clicking, Cahn’s internal rhyming machine is inspired:

The mam’selles and frauleins and the senoritas are sweet
But they can’t compete ’cause they just don’t have
What the models have on Madison Ave

Come Fly With Me was musical escapism, a fantasy of freedom to roam, to grab a dame, a toothbrush and comb and go off on an adventure. Flying was still a glamorous thing in 1958 when this LP came out and was in every living room of every couple with small children running around. My parents weren’t dashing around the globe, weren’t “wingin’ ‘cross the foam” (a Sammyism for flying over the ocean). They were in The Bronx, but Frank was taking them on a trip.

girl crushes & biscuits

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The only thing that surprises me about Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” is that it took so long for someone to write a song called “Girl Crush.” It’s something you hear all the time, a cute turn of phrase that pops up in conversation. Mention Mila Kunis to a female friend and she might say, “I have such a girl crush on her,” and it doesn’t need any explanation. There’s a chapter called “Girl Crush” in Lena Dunham’s book. When a term like that enters the language, the next step is becoming a pop or country song, so I can imagine the writing session in Nashville when three heavy-hitter songscribes — Liz Rose, Lori McKenna and Hillary Lindsey — start to kick around ideas and one of them says, “How about ‘Girl Crush’?” Perfect. And because this is Nashville, remember, they find a way to spin it that gives it a narrative overlayer: the female singer’s crush is also her romantic nemesis. So the envy and attraction are about what the other girl has, the person the singer wants. It’s a terrific song, all pop longing and slow-dance wistfulness, cleverly orchestrated. Of course Little Big Town snapped it up, and Karen Fairchild wrings all the complicated emotion out of it. And of course it became a lightning rod for wacky misinterpretation, because — and I’m sorry to have to say this — many people who listen to Country radio are awfully literal-minded.

Imagine a mom in Idaho, making breakfast for her kid, radio tuned to the Country station, and in the midst of all the guy-centric music being pumped out, comes this waltz-ballad sung by a woman: “I’ve got a girl crush, hate to admit it.” Does she need to hear anything more? No, she does not. In the name of all that is holy, and to not have to explain to her child what it means for a girl to have a crush on another girl, even in a non-sexual way, she calls up the radio station to complain.

Or another woman shows up in person at another station playing “Girl Crush” to register her outrage. A few stories like this (it’s supporting the Gay Agenda!), and “Girl Crush” is in the culture war crossfire: Miranda, Blake and Reba tweet their support for the song and for LBT, the track goes to #1 on the iTunes and Amazon Country charts (only one other woman, Miranda Lambert, is in the iTunes Top 10), commentators weigh in on the disparity between the song’s obvious popularity and the airplay that is slow to catch up. Some stations keep it in lower rotation.

In a way, I’m happy for LBT, because all the whipped-up noise might make more people pay attention to one of the best groups making any kind of music these days (move on to “Day Drinking,” also from the newest album, or the ridiculously catchy #1 “Pontoon” from the last one). And because anything that inflames the righteous indignation of the moral guardians is ok with me. It’s also another example of how, in the midst of a whirlwind of retro-macho Country, the women down in Nashville are keeping it interesting, from Maddie & Tae’s genre-baiting “Girl In A Country Song,” to the women who co-wrote “Girl Crush,” to Miranda Lambert and her pack (the other Pistol Annies, writer Natalie Hemby, etc.), to Sarah Zimmerman (the female half of Striking Matches), Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves,

Kacey’s been girl-crushed a bit by the response to her song “Follow Your Arrow” from her last album, where she sings, matter-of-factly, “Kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into.” Well, good for her. The song won all kinds of awards without ever becoming a real Country Hit, pointing out the divide that’s driving the LBT situation: How do you deny your audience the best music being made in your genre? Do you let the crackpots sway your decisions? One woman (seems most of the complainers are female; not sure why) insisted she would never listen to the station playing “Girl Crush” again unless they dropped it from their playlist. I hope they told her it’s a free country and she can not listen to anything she wants, but I’d guess it’s the only Country game in town and she has nowhere else to go. I also hope they play the new Kacey Musgraves song “Biscuits,” because she is not backing down. She has zero tolerance for judgmental busy-bodies:

Nobody’s perfect, we’ve all lost and we’ve all lied
Most of us have cheated, the rest of us have tried

Some stations might have issues with “Smoke your own smoke” as song-advice, and “Pissing in my yard ain’t gonna make yours any greener” just won’t fly in some parts, I’m sure. They can hit the bleep button. What Kacey and the whole “Girl Crush” crew (and it’s not as though “Girl Crush” is that provocative, except to the terminally dense) and all the Annies — I think Miranda Lambert was the only artist who had lyrics censored on the Grammys (“I play guitar and I go on the road and I do all the shit you wanna do”) — are up to may not seem that important, but it’s good that they’re bugging people who need to be bugged. Country has a long way to go: after her performance of “Hold My Hand” on the Grammys, Brandy Clark should have blown sky high on Country radio. It’s a song Tammy Wynette would have killed in the ’70s and made a Country classic, and the fact that it never got traction is a shame. “Girl Crush” should, and still might, be the kind of crossover ballad that Lady A’s “Need You Now” was, and if it’s helped by the faint-of-heart hankie-clutchers in Idaho, all the better.

walk away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dion’s downtown music

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/richardbarone