music for dummies

Kim Cattrall and Andrew McCarthy in Mannequin

It doesn’t look as though Kristen Wiig is up for a sequel to Bridesmaids, which given the amount of cash that would be thrown at her feet is a position of admirable restraint, but midway through The Skeleton Twins she and Bill Hader have a routine that rivals the Wiig-Maya Rudolph “Hold On” lip-sync duet. Now I’m up for Wiig including one of these scenes in every movie she does, even though that’s unfeasible (but how great would it be if she were one of the female Ghostbusters in the coming reboot and there were an opportunity for her and her fellow GB’s to lip-sync the Ray Parker Jr. title song?). In The Skeleton Twins, the song is Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” like “Hold On” a archetypical piece of empowered cheese from that late-’80s/early ‘90s era that was filled with pop bombast.

I read an article this week on the Rolling Stone website that calls 1984 pop’s greatest year and did a double-take: that “8” had to have been a typo, right? No, the piece is serious. There apparently is a strain of real 1980s nostalgia, some of it good (The Replacements), some of it semi-ironic (Hall & Oates), some of it just baffling. ‘84 was ok, I suppose – Purple Rain, Like A Virgin and all that — but Born In The U.S.A. is my least-played 20th century Springsteen album because it sounds so much like the 1980s, beefed-up and synthetic. It was tough for anyone, Dylan (Knocked Out Loaded), The Stones (Dirty Work), McCartney (‘84’s Give My Regards To Broad Street), Stevie Wonder (‘84’s “I Just Called To Say I Love You”) to get out of the ‘80s with their artistic reputation untainted (Springsteen recovered with Tunnel of Love). 1984 was the year of Footloose, “Radio Ga Ga,” Barry Manilow singing Jim Steinman, Toto and Lionel Richie. Rolling Stone thinks it’s the greatest pop year ever. Ponder for a moment.

But back to The Skeleton Twins, and Starship. When music nerds debate what rock star with bona fide credibility did the best job of sabotaging a distinguished career, the topic usually circles around to Rod Stewart, and there’s a case to be made, especially since he sleepwalked through standards on a series of albums that, if anything, made you forgive his disco phase as mere youthful folly. My nominee is Grace Slick. Granted, her career was not as outstanding as Stewart’s — there’s no Gasoline Alley or Every Picture Tells A Story in her solo catalog, and much of Jefferson Airplane/Starship’s discography hasn’t weathered the decades that well — but there was a moment, around 1967-1969, when she was arguably the biggest female artist in rock. Her voice was icy, but flexible, all steely restraint while Janis Joplin’s was filled with swagger. In another era, Slick might have wandered up to North Beach to sing cool jazz, and made men weak.

Unlike Janis, Grace didn’t have to carry all the weight: the Airplane had multiple personalities with different musical agendas. When the band was firing, it really was, as the kids would say, a trip. That only lasted a few years, and then it all went to splinters, and in the ‘70s it was anyone’s guess who was in the Airplane/Starship at any given time: the band went through something like a half-dozen personnel permutations in seven years. By the time of The Greatest Pop Year Ever, Jefferson Starship was recording their last “Jefferson” album (Nuclear Furniture), and Grace had released the solo album Software. You don’t know those albums, nor should you want to.

The Starship album No Protection came out two decades after the Airplane broke through in the Summer of Love (give it up for a woman in her late forties who could hang in there in the era of MTV), and here’s where “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” comes into the picture, featured on that LP and on the soundtrack to the film Mannequin. This is what 1987 was like. A romantic comedy in which the titular character (well, not “character,” exactly, window display), played by Kim Cattrall, magically comes to life to hang out with Andrew McCarthy. And James Spader is in it. Starship’s two lead singers, Grace Slick and Mickey Thomas (imagine Steve Perry crossed with Michael Bolton), bolstered by Narada Michael Walden’s arena-synth-rock production, shout the (Oscar-nominated!) Albert Hammond-Diane Warren song at each other:

Let them say we’re crazy, I don’t care about that
Put your hand in my hand, baby, don’t ever look back

Assume that this is a declaration of mutual love between a boy and a department-store dummy: “If this world runs out of lovers, we’ll still have each other.” First of all, was there some impending lover-depletion in 1987? And to get analytical for a second, wouldn’t falling for a woman molded out of plastic be a sign of intimacy issues? Have you ever seen an unclothed mannequin?

Wiig and Hader’s choreographed “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” is a goofy highpoint of The Skeleton Twins, and it’s an example of how the cultural wheel spins: if the film catches on, expect the song to return to high rotation at a karaoke bar near you. I didn’t think I’d ever enjoy hearing the Starship record, or that I’d ever be doing a Starship search on YouTube and reliving the moment in musical history when Grace Slick and Kim Cattrall intersected. I’m fairly certain that Slick would rather be remembered for her contributions to Crown of Creation than for anything on No Protection, but pop doesn’t work that way. Even your most embarrassing incidents are up for grabs. Starship chased a pop hit, caught one, and now it’s back. Everyone sing along, “And we can build this dream together….”.

let’s dig the scene and have our fling with it

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Once in a while, The Dick Van Dyke Show would find an excuse for its two stars — Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore — to break out in song, as though it wasn’t charming enough to watch Rob & Laura Petrie of New Rochelle play the sexiest couple on TV. Rob had the most enviable of lives, writing sketches for The Alan Brady Show in Manhattan, going home to Laura, whom he met when she was a teenaged hoofer in a U.S.O. revue. Their courtship began with a song-and-dance number, “You Wonderful You,” and as a settled suburban husband and wife, somehow they managed to bust out the tunes at the drop of a hat. The Dick Van Dyke Show is where I first heard “The Doodling Song” (I later found out that Peggy Lee and Blossom Dearie had cut in on disc), and when Jackie Cain, of the singing duo Jackie and Roy, passed away earlier this week, the first thing that crossed my mind was Rob and Laura’s version of Rodgers & Hart’s “Mountain Greenery.” Someone on the DVD staff was obviously pretty clued-in, because the Petries’ arrangement was modeled very closely on the ‘50s recording by Jackie and Roy.

Jackie Cain and Roy Kral were just cool enough. They weren’t as dazzlingly inventive as Lambert, Hendricks and Ross (who were like the Nichols & May of vocal jazz interplay), but they could take some surprising turns, and their records all sound filled with affection and playfulness, without the square, staged musical banter of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. You believed them as a couple, the way you bought into Rob and Laura: look at Jackie and Roy on the front and back cover of their By Jupiter & Girl Crazy album on Roulette. She’s barely draped in flowing light blue in one shot, trying to seduce his indifferent gladiator, and on the flip side, they’re a pair of cowpokes. It all should come off as ultra-corny, but somehow it doesn’t. It’s like they’re at some costume party, and you imagine that those costumes might come into play in imaginative ways later that night.

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It’s a nutty discography; in the ‘60s, like so many singers who were trying to keep up, they zig-zagged all over the place, into bossa nova (“Samba Triste” and “Corcovado” on Verve’s Lovesick), covers of contemporary tunes by The Beatles (six Lennon-McCartney songs on Changes), even an album on Capitol called Grass (“The Electric Jackie & Roy”: more L-McC, plus Paul Simon, the Gibbs…). As those things go, they aren’t embarrassing, because they still have the low-key warmth of the earlier records, and on CTI’s Time and Love (1972), they nestle into a comfortable jazz-pop zone, but they aren’t the places to begin with Jackie and Roy. Since they bopped around from label to label, compiling something definitive would be a pain (although now Universal has the ABC-Paramount, Capitol, Verve and CTI stuff under their roof, which leaves Roulette and Columbia material to reckon with). Where you want to go is to the swinging, flirty ‘50s/brink-of-the-’60s sides.

There’s a whole Columbia LP of Andre and Dory Previn compositions (Like Sing, with “Sing Me An Abstract Song”) that’s worth seeking out, and some of J&R’s most Petrie-ish LP’s have been coupled for download, so you can easily grab such numbers as “Kiss and Run,” “How Are You Fixed For Love?,” “Fun Life” (“Let’s dig the scene and have our fling with it,” Jackie sings, “Because we’re young, let’s ding-a-ling with it”),” “Ooh! That Kiss,” “You Smell So Good” and “I Love You Real.” It was a sort of swank-hip thing, the straight-looking (until the inevitable later-’60s sideburns) guy at the piano, the girl who brought some pow to the affair. In the Jackie Cain NY Times’ obit, Kral is quoted as saying, “She was a voluptuous blonde, right out of high school. She was very convincing.” But the piece goes on to say that it was Cain who made the big move: “I leaned over and kissed him. A big, juicy wet one.” What you still hear in the records Jackie and Roy made is that matter-of-fact chemistry, their voices teasing each other. They were the musical Rob and Laura, all right. Just two crazy people together.

let the boys rock and roll

WKDA Nashville Concert Poster

The event at NYU’s Provincetown Playhouse was formally billed as a Songwriters Hall of Fame Master Session, but when it concluded with John Sebastian playing harmonica as Felix Cavaliere sang “Groovin’” from behind his keyboard, not a few older attendees were subtly dabbing away tears, like guys dragged by their dates to see The Fault In Our Stars. It was that kind of night; about a hundred people gathered in lower Manhattan, mere steps from where the Night Owl cafe once stood, to watch the singer-songwriters from The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Rascals tell stories to interviewer Phil Galdston. It went on for two hours, and on the street afterwards, the gaggle of music geeks were spinning with anecdotes and memories: how they’d played in teenage bands who did Spoonful and Rascals covers; how they first saw The Spoonful at a Murray The K Big Holiday Show where the group shared the bill with almost every major Motown act, or even before that when they were down the block at the Night Owl; how they (ok, I) first heard of The Rascals when my parents came home from a Night In The City at the Phone Booth or Harlow’s, bringing back a big red and white “Rascals” button that is still in a box of tchotchkes.

What was striking about this Master Session — and in an academic sense that’s what it was, albeit with quite an emotional component — was that it underlined how much of the music that came out in the mid-‘60s was a result of how much the bands were paying attention to each other, and to what was swirling around them. As Felix mentioned, radio stations couldn’t not play a new Beatles single, no matter how out-there it was, so they had infinite freedom to experiment, and that license was handed down to groups like the Spoonful and the Rascals.

You could get a waltz-with-accordion on the air (“How Can I Be Sure”), use sound effects for texture (“”Summer In The City,” “Groovin’”), draw on Motown (Felix demonstrated how much the groove on “Lonely Too Long” owed to The Temptations) or vintage folk and jug band music (John nicked a small phrase in “Younger Girl” from a Gus Cannon song). There was so much creative liberty, even for pop groups that wanted to get singles in the top 40 (the two bands had a baker’s dozen top 10 hits between them) and perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. Everyone knew what everyone else was up to, and knew that they’d all better step it up. McCartney answered “Daydream” with “Good Day Sunshine,” and Galdston pointed out that Brian Wilson was inspired to write “God Only Knows” by Sebastian’s “You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice.” Even John was surprised to hear that, but when he picked up a guitar to sing it, with Felix backing him up on keyboards and vocals, it made perfect sense. You can know a song inside out for fifty years, and still find out something new about it.

Sebastian showed what connects “Daydream” to “Deep Purple,” and sang “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind” the way he’d heard it originally: he’d always thought the record was missing some Huey “Piano” Smith-ish piano, so Cavaliere provided that missing component. And he sang the first verse of the semi-lost track “Pow!” (there’s a moment I never thought I’d witness), written for Woody Allen’s first movie, What’s Up, Tiger Lily? The names came flying: Tim Hardin, Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin at Atlantic, Artie Ripp at Kama Sutra, Fritz Richmond (who gave Sebastian’s band its name when John told him the band he was forming combined elements of Chuck Berry and Mississippi John Hurt), Cass Elliot, Joey Dee. The Albert Hotel, where the Spoonful rehearsed, The Barge, where the Rascals were discovered, the Playhouse Cafe that was on MacDougal and was the spot where Sebastian met Fred Neil.

These were Our Bands, The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Rascals. Before that, there were the New York doo wop and R&B groups, but in a post-Beatles universe, we needed local heroes with guitars, bass and drums (and, it turned out, organ, thanks to Felix Cavaliere and Al Kooper in The Blues Project). In the second half of 1965, two singles came out, “Do You Believe In Magic,” a sound so simple and so unstoppably joyful, and “Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore,” with its rumbling build-up to a “Yeah!” that was a “Yeah!” of adolescent defiance. “If you were a certain age,” Felix said to me after the session, “we got you.” They were young guys who found other young guys to make noise with. At the time, there were tags put on them: folk-rock, blue-eyed soul, limiting and ultimately meaningless, because what could confine them?

On their debut albums, The Spoonful covered traditional blues and Mann & Weil, and The Rascals covered Dylan and The Beau Brummels. One of The Spoonful’s first recordings was Chuck Berry’s “Almost Grown,” and The Young Rascals led off their first LP with Larry Williams’ “Slow Down.” Which group was “folk,” which group was “soul”? Later on, couldn’t John and Felix have swapped “Daydream” and “Groovin’,” Darling Be Home Soon” and “How Can I Be Sure”? “Come on up,” Felix sang back then, “and have a good time,” not that long after John wrote The Spoonful’s declaration of principles, “Good Time Music.”

So let’s say that’s what it was: a good (or as The Beatles would have it, splendid) time to be devoted to pop music. To see Dino Danelli twirling his sticks, or Zal Yanovsky treat the stage like a playground, to hear songs like “She Is Still A Mystery” or “A Girl Like You” on the radio, to do nothing but listen to Hums of The Lovin’ Spoonful or Collections over and over. That’s what we had in common, the small crowd that came out to see John and Felix trade songs and stories. When we left the Playhouse, we were like a bunch of high-school friends who’d just seen a double bill of our two favorite bands. That was the club we belonged to.

the world’s last cassette

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Pop music makes promises it can’t reasonably be expected to keep, but that doesn’t stop us from clinging to it. There’s something so seductive about the idea that pop can heal what’s broken, that finding people to make music with is like building a private fortress. Just this year, we’ve seen Begin Again, We Are The Best! and now Stuart Murdoch’s God Help The Girl celebrate the bonding of a band (in Begin Again’s case, a band of two) as a way to navigate trying times. You could call this sentimentality, I suppose: surely there are other means to handle feelings of displacement, isolation, that don’t involve an accompanying playlist, but you cannot over-estimate how a song — even the idea of a song, like “Pretty Ballerina” by The Left Banke — can transform a moment. Murdoch doesn’t play “Pretty Ballerina” on his soundtrack: he gets the camera in tight on the Smash Records 45, and drops the phonograph needle, and so you expect to hear the single, but instead you hear one of the songs he’s written for the film (he also wrote the screenplay, and directed). It’s one of the maybe half-dozen moments when I muttered “wow” to myself, sitting alone at an a.m. screening in a nearly-empty theater.

God Help The Girl was an album first, or at least, the album came first, in 2009 (maybe there was already a script). Murdoch, of the Scottish duo Belle & Sebastian, did it as a female-centric side project, and even without a visual component, songs like “I’ll Have To Dance With Cassie” (below),” “Pretty Eve In The Tub” and “A Down and Dusky Blonde” felt like free-associative journal entries, and it turns out that’s kind of what they are. Eve, the main character (played by Emily Browning) is a songwriter without a band until she meets James (Olly Alexander) and Cassie (Hannah Murray), and when she sings, the scenes fizz like moments in a vintage movie musical. Or like scenes from a New Wave film; Browning is styled like Anna Karina (there’s a little Bande A Part sneaking in), and reads Anna Karenina, and Murdoch shifts tone and palette giddily, so imagine if Jean-Luc Godard were as romantic about pop music as he is about cinema. Or if Masculin Feminin were all about Chantal Goya’s ye-ye girl.

Whether you respond to Murdoch’s point of view or not, you could well get swept into this, or else be put off by the whimsy (God Help The Girl is also a bit like a Wes Anderson musical, so the word “twee’ might be thrown around). All I know is, it was a movie I needed. All James wants to do is plant a small flag in the pop music ground, make records (and it’s no small bonus that Eve has “pop star” stamped on her genetic passport). Cassie wants to be part of a band. And Eve doesn’t know what she wants, exactly, but she knows it’s probably not in Glasgow. It’s one of those “transition summer” movies, where people who were meant to find each other do, in the nick of time.

adults only

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What can explain the poverty of imagination in what passes for contemporary adult pop music? So many of the grown-ups have basically shrugged, muttered “screw it” under their breath and given up looking for, or writing, new songs. Is it that much of a hassle? If you’re going to go into the studio anyway to record music for public consumption, can’t you put a little effort into it? Some of these artists are on labels I’ve worked for, and I have friends who are still professionally connected to them. I wish all of them (well, nearly all of them) smooth sailing as their albums drop in time for Grammy Consideration, but the pre-order track listings are so depressing: songs that have been recycled for generations in some cases, revisited with predictable duet partners

See, these albums say, we know you only care about the vintage stuff, and it’s hard to make a living pushing the new merchandise, and remember how you liked all these songs before? One veteran smooth-pop singer is reportedly working on an entire album of duets with deceased vocalists; we can only hope that someone has a flash of sanity and stops that in its tracks. If you think it can’t get more sacrilegious than Kenny G. noodling along with Louis Armstrong, just wait.

Lately, I’ve been digging through a lot of Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen. Tom Waits and Warren Zevon, and it’s sad. Pick up any old album from their early days — 12 Songs, Songs From A Room, Small Change, Zevon’s debut — and although they were all relatively young men when they went in to cut those songs, there was a sense of gravity. They weren’t boys. There was darkness and experience. There were good jokes, and lines that got you in the gut and below.

Not one of them had a pretty voice, or made easy listening music. Three of them are now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the fourth should get in any year now (too late for what would have been one hell of a speech, I’m sure). What I’m worried about — and here’s where the accusations of codgerdom should start flying my way — is that they, along with Dylan (and some might tack on, say, Billy Joel, or Paul Simon) represent the last generation of grown-up singer-songwriters.

Who is there? Ryan Adams? Maybe. I’m certain some would nominate Beck. John Mayer has his fans. But we should ask: How many songs have they written that have seeped into the culture and stuck the way Newman’s and Cohen’s have? And: Is this just a Guy Problem? Think about the (non-pop) singer-songwriters who have made the deepest, most resonant music over the past ten or so years, and they’re women: Adele, Amy Winehouse, Fiona Apple, and I’m going to throw Lana Del Rey and Kacey Musgraves in there because they’re kind of on the fringes of the genres they reside in. For young women, 21 or Same Trailer, Different Park are Blue, or Tapestry. The guys have left the room to play air guitar.

Pop-pandering, I get. That’s the nature of the game. It’s a world of ear candy and always has been. The other day I heard The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” blasting in my block’s juice-&-smoothie joint, and the college kids behind the counter (I basically live on the N.Y.U. campus) were singing along like it was a new Katy Perry single. But there was this whole other thing going on in the ‘60s and ‘70s when you started to want more than pop. There was a place for the erotic and sardonic, for dive bars and hangovers, for misadventure and questionable behavior.

That was adult music. Now it’s more misty water-colored duets on familiar songs, singers being hoisted from the grave, covers of covers. If you love those songs, and who doesn’t love at least some of them?, you already own them, or can find them easily enough in streamingville. Or is the premise that the audience for these stocking-stuffers is too old to know how to go to Spotify and find countless better versions? Which is to ask: is Michael Buble really necessary?

bigger than a cadillac

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“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

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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

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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

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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

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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?