something awful nice

I’m not one of those dedicated diggers for rare vocal group records from the fifties and early sixties, those guys who show up at record fairs with their own portable players, inspect the inner grooves of 45s to see what plants they were pressed in, immediately spot bogus copies. I’m not one of those guys, but I know them. Not personally. But I recognize them when I see them, and I relate: The urge to acquire, to discover, to find something you’ve never seen before in your decades of record collecting, that’s all part of my make-up. And my familiarity with what was never called doo wop when it was just part of rock ‘n’ roll, but is now, so we just have to deal with that, is pretty vast. For a while, I was trying to do a book proposal about that genre and that era, with the astonishingly knowledgeable Kenny Vance, and we spent hours talking about which group lead singers we loved, what records give us chills to this day.

I remember all the nights I spent listening to Gus Gossert on the radio, paying rapt attention, learning about groups who had eluded me. He had a particular affection for records from the late ‘50s with high-tenor leads, the offspring of Frankie Lymon, all those boys whose voices were filled with yearning and wonder and heartbreak. It was a New York City sound, for the most part, and Gossert was an encyclopedic guide. So is it possible I never heard a record by a group called the Escorts (there were a bunch of groups called the Escorts, which makes this even more entangled) called, perfectly, “There’s Something Awful Nice About You”? A couple of weeks ago, my head turned when a commercial came on, for a company called, and the song in the spot was familiar, but not. It’s a pure Gossert-type record, dreamy and earnest. Was it Frankie singing? His brother Lewis Lymon with the Teenchords? Maybe the Students? Some B-side that I have on a vocal group anthology somewhere? Why couldn’t I place it?

I don’t know very much more now, but some. The internet can be your friend. It turns out that these particular Escorts recorded “There’s Something Awful Nice About You” for Old Town Records – that great NYC indie label — in 1959, and it remained unreleased for decades, finally popping up in 1993 on an Ace Records compilation of Old Town stuff (Volume 2 of Old Town Doo Wop), where it sits alongside tracks by the Fiestas, the Solitares, the Harptones, the Chimes…Typing those names conjures up not just the nights listening to Gossert, but years before that, when Murray the K would play them as “Blasts from the Past” and songs for “Submarine Race Watching.” I caught the tail end of that era; the first rock ‘n’ roll show I saw featured the Marcels, the Capris, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs, Rosie from the Originals, Ben E. King from the Drifters. It’s part of the sound of my childhood.

One day in 1959, a bunch of kids found themselves in an actual recording studio, and it must have been a dream they had when they were harmonizing in their schoolyard, or on the street at night. They cut a couple of songs (let’s say, because every single had a flip side), “There’s Something Awful Nice About You” and the up-tempo “Why Does the World Go Round” (which was kind of “Every Day of the Week” crossed with “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”), and they waited. It took decades, and then one of those tracks found its way onto a CD. More waiting, another quarter-century! Someone finds “There’s Something Awful Nice About You” and decides to build a TV campaign featuring it, and people (like me) are bopping around online trying to get to the bottom of this, and they’re finding the song on YouTube and on Spotify. Are any of the Escorts still around to be mystified by this circle of fate? To hear their voices on television a few times a day? To tell their grandchildren about when they thought they were going to be played on the radio, or be on the bill at the Brooklyn Paramount? The song is an oldie that was never really new, so it’s new now, and ancient at the same time.

going negative

Someone I’m friends with on Facebook asked, quite sincerely I suspect, whether there’s any chance that the band Greta Van Fleet is in on the joke. That they know full well how absurd the music they make is, and that their awfulness is in fact deliberate. Which would be amazing if it were the case, a prank worthy of Andy Kaufman. But sadly, that would be giving them too much credit. I poked around in their blessedly scant discography, listened to songs like “Highway Tune,” “Black Smoke Rising,” “Flower Power” and their cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” (now that takes a staggering degree of chutzpah), and to their new album Anthem of the Peaceful Army, and I admit it did make me laugh. Give them credit for plowing through songs like “Age of Man,” “Brave New World,” “Mountain of the Sun” and, inevitably, “Anthem,” as though these ideas just popped into their heads! No, they cannot possibly be kidding. Tufnel & St. Hubbins could not come up with words like this: “Where is the music/A tune to free the soul/A simple lyric to unite us all, you know.” It’s that “You know” that elevates this, the laziest fake rhyme for “the soul” imaginable. Why bother to come up with something better when “you know” will do fine? “The world is only what the world is made of.” And I used to make fun of Uriah Heep and Sir Lord Baltimore. I apologize.

Everyone mentions how much GVF draws from Led Zeppelin, and that’s true, but I don’t see that as a problem so much. As touchstones go, this young band could do a lot worse; they could have gone full-prog (they do have some prog-ish tendencies), and considering how many artists Led Zep liberally stole from, it’s fair game. It does bug me a bit that this is the band some of my rock-centric acquaintances are pointing to as evidence that rock will never die. See?? Kids still dig loud guitars, screamy voices and dumb lyrics, just like in olden times. It’s cute how needy for relevance rock fans are that they will cling to Greta Van Fleet. I’d been hearing about them for a year or so, but I never felt the impetus to pay attention until recently when the band was critically decimated by a Pitchfork review. Like, dismissed with extreme prejudice. And I needed – see how clickbait works? – to hear for myself what got the reviewer so ired up.

As pans go, it’s pretty savage. For these days, that is. What struck me wasn’t that the review was mean, but that there was so much shock at a negative assessment of an album. That had to be part of the reason for publishing it; a mediocre review wouldn’t have generated any outrage. But there seemed to be surprise that Pitchfork was so unsparing. It was as though some protocol was breached. There just isn’t that much thumbs-down to music anymore. And that’s a shame, because what made rock criticism so much fun, and so vital, was that there was a streak of what would now be considered cruelty. Creem, the magazine I wrote the most for, mocked many, many artists and the albums they sent out into the world. Professor Robert Christgau handed out “D”s and “Must to Avoid”s regularly. The first edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide (the red one that Dave Marsh and John Swenson edited), had pages of one-star reviews. The album GTR was reviewed in Musician magazine thusly: “SHT.” Greil Marcus famously knocked Dylan in Rolling Stone, who once upon a time would even run not-so-thrilled notices of albums by the Beatles and the Stones. Now, of course, even the most substandard of efforts by Jann’s pantheon of artists are instant classics.

Very few high-profile albums, no matter how bad, are slammed. Why isn’t that the case with movies? Most critics agree that things like Collateral Beauty (14% favorable on Rotten Tomatoes) and Life Itself (12%) are a complete waste of time, and you might think that Anthem of the Peaceful Army is the Collateral Beauty of rock albums, but over on Metacritic, a slim majority (58%) has given it a passing grade. And that’s really low for Metacritic. No current albums you might have heard of has below 50% OK. Bad TV shows like Insatiable (11%) and The Four: Battle for Stardom (17%) are called out on their badness. When was the last time you saw an album on a major label (or with any kind of public profile), get near-uniformly awful reviews? Only one new album in the November issue of Mojo earned fewer than three stars. How is that possible, unless the policy is, why bother at all with telling readers why something is terrible when there is so much three-stars-or-better music out there?

That’s why I got a kick out of the Pitchfork 1.6 rating for Greta Van Fleet. It reminded me that sometimes an album just needs to be punched in the mouth.

a.k.a. flip cartridge

In 1977, the year I started scribbling copy in Arista Records’ publicity department, Clive Davis hired Billy Meshel to run Arista’s new music publishing company, and I’d see Billy once in a while, especially when I needed info on a press release announcing a new songwriter signing. He was a gregarious, enthusiastic guy. What I didn’t know, and wish I had, was that he had written songs that were recorded by Gene Pitney, Del Shannon, Dion & the Belmonts, Reparata & the Delrons, Lloyd Price, Cliff Richard, the Brady Bunch. And that he’d made his own records under his own and different names (one pseudonym he used was Flip Cartridge, and how utterly perfect is that?). Had I been aware that Meshel was the author or co-author of such songs as “L. David Sloane,” “That’s What Sends Men to the Bowery,” “Dear Mrs. Applebee” and “I Blew It,” and the B-side of Shannon’s “Hats Off to Larry” (“Don’t Gild the Lily, Lily”), and “The Man Who Took the Valise Off the Floor at Grand Central Station at Noon,” I’m sure I’d have peppered him with questions about being a songwriter-on-the-make in the 1960s, about having his compositions cut by John Davidson and Michele Lee, about his own album The Love Song of A. Wilbur Meshel.

His songs weren’t exactly “novelty” songs, but they had the far-fetched, gimmicky lyrics, and sprightly melodies, of pop songs that were reminiscent of early-20th-century vaudeville and English music hall, but with a modern spin. They had characters – “(It Ain’t Easy Being) Shirley Newman’s Boyfriend,” “Take a Bow, Rufus Humfry” — and little scenarios (“I Didn’t Come to NY to Meet a Girl from My Hometown”). Like a lot of writers from his era, he tried his hand at sappy teen ballads (there is an especially unfortunate one he sings under the name Billy Mitchum, “Twelve and Three Quarters”), girl-group records (the Fortune Cookies, the Royalettes), whatever was hot at the moment (“The Heartbreaking Truth” by Don & Juan is a Righteous Brothers soundalike). You can check more than thirty of them out on the compilation Paradise Found: the Songs of Billy Meshel, but that “Early Years” CD doesn’t have some of his oddest and most Meshelish efforts. For those, YouTube is particularly helpful, but not comprehensive.

Take “I Blew It”: it was released as a single (on Roulette) in 1967 by a group called the Vacant Lot, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that “the Vacant Lot” was another Meshel secret identity (the singer sounds suspiciously like him). “I’m never gonna have a happy ending,” the narrator complains, “like in the paperbacks when the sad and lonely couple strike oil in the backyard and the landlord goes to prison forever.” “I Blew It” is quintessential Meshel, and his version (or let’s say the version released under his name, because who knows?) on the A. Wilbur Meshel album actually got some FM airplay in NY when it came out as a single in 1969. The album also has “That’s What Sends Men to the Bowery,” which had been done by Gene Pitney, Reparata & the Delrons, and previously by Meshel as Flip Cartridge. What sends men to the Bowery? “Great disappointments from beautiful girls.” Meshel paints a picture of an army of forgotten men, exiled to downtown Manhattan (this is pre-gentrification; pre-CBGB’s, even) by romantic rejection.

Flip Cartridge’s “Dear Mrs. Applebee” (think a variation on “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter”) was another miss for Meshel as a recording artist (WMCA spun it for a little while), but became a hit in the U.K. by David Garrick, who also cut Meshel’s “The Man Who Took the Valise Off the Floor at Grand Central Station at Noon” (other versions: Lloyd Price – the original – on his short-lived stint on Reprise Records, the U.K. girl-band She Trinity, and the kazoo-based GoZoo Band on Columbia). “Valise” – I just can’t type it out again – tells the tale of poor Mary Lou, whose luggage fell into the hands of someone else, and what a shame, because it was packed for her honeymoon (a polka-dot dress, a bikini or two, a brand new strawberry hat, a pink chemise). Meshel’s biggest U.S. hit was Michele Lee’s “L. David Sloane” (in England, the single was by Kay Garner, and there was an instrumental 45 by the Electric Junkyard), a jaunty kiss-off: she just wants to be left alone so she isn’t tempted (“I’m at a point where my resistance can be destroyed by your insistence”). Lee’s LP also had her doing Meshel’s “I Didn’t Come to New York to Meet a Guy from My Hometown.”

It never occurred to me to buy The Love Song of A. Wilbur Meshel when it came out in 1969; it was difficult to figure out what it was. The cover was a photo of a schlubby Meshel sitting woefully in a park, eating a sandwich, one bench over from a happy couple. “Written and performed by Billy Meshel” didn’t ring any bells, the liner notes were kind of baffling. But a few days ago I was flipping (see what I did there?) through some vinyl at Academy and there it was. Now I knew “Loserville” (Dion & the Belmonts did it on their Together Again reunion album), “That’s What Sends Men to the Bowery,” and I vaguely remembered “If You Could Put That in a Bottle” (I think the version by a group called The Minimum Daily Requirements, but maybe by John Davidson). When the single from A. Wilbur Meshel, “(It Ain’t Easy Being) Shirley Newman’s Boyfriend,” was issued in 1969, Billboard tipped it as “right in today’s sales market and it could prove a big one.” It wasn’t. “I’ve got to stand there,” Meshel sings, “while everybody calls her nasty, dirty names.” You can hear on his album touches of Nilsson, Biff Rose, Rupert Holmes, writers who twisted pop songs in whimsical, unexpected ways. It’s a shame I never poked my head into his office and asked him, “What on earth were you thinking?”

gazing on waterloo sunset

In the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s book Juliet, Naked, a reclusive singer-songwriter is coaxed into performing at a seaside town’s museum exhibition, but he doesn’t sing something he wrote; he sings something he wishes he’d written, Ray Davies’ “Waterloo Sunset.” The Kinks’ record also pops up on the soundtrack of the documentary My Generation, an impressionistic flashback to ‘60s London, guided by Michael Caine. I happened to see both films on the same day, and earlier in the morning, I’d played the song on Spotify, by request. So it was, from sun-up to nighttime, a period where that most hauntingly cinematic of songs circled in the air. Unlike so many other artifacts from the summer of 1967, “Waterloo Sunset” seems, somehow, disconnected from its moment.

Maybe it would feel different to me if it had been as big a hit single in America as it was in the U.K.; maybe, if it accompanied me everywhere on the radio when it was released, it would be more tethered to that summer the way a lot of records are. “Groovin’,” say, or “Somebody to Love,” or “Light My Fire.” “Waterloo Sunset” exists in its own universe, befitting a song that is quietly, privately observant. The singer sits by his window. He doesn’t need friends, just his view of the dirty old river in eveningtime. We don’t even know if “Terry and Julie” are real, or in a movie in his mind – they are named after famous British actors – that has the companionship and romance that his life lacks.

Did I even hear “Waterloo Sunset” when it was released, or did I not discover it until it closed out the album Something Else by the Kinks, months later (it didn’t hit the U.S. until early in 1968)? I was obsessed by that album, as I was by The Who Sell Out, two British rock albums that, it seems to me, are more resonant and timeless than that most celebrated and venerated album from ’67 by the Beatles. How would it have reached me? Maybe I read about it in Rave magazine? Maybe someone published a U.K. singles chart? Something Else didn’t make much of a dent in America, but my friends and I could not stop playing it. The Kinks weren’t on pop radio in ’67-‘68, and they were prohibited from playing live in the U.S., so being a fan involved a certain level of alertness: Something Else snuck into record stores, and onto the Billboard album chart in the lower quarter of the top 200 for a meager two weeks.

It felt, compared to so much of the music that swirled around it, modest, finely detailed, filled with lovely details. There were portraits of characters, short stories, melancholy ruminations, all concluding with “Waterloo Sunset,” a song so perfect and so touching. When the character Tucker Crowe in the Juliet, Naked film is at Waterloo Station with his young son, the song pops into his head, as it does in mine every time I visit London and enter that tube stop. “Terry meets Julie, Waterloo Station, every Friday night.” If it happens to be a Friday, you look around, maybe, and feel a part of the continuing life of Davies’ vivid sketch.

It’s a marvel, the way the song’s camera dollys in to Davies’ flat — he’s looking out his window, singing as though to himself, making little notes about what he sees – and then switches perspective; there are Terry and Julie (you picture Stamp and Christie, of course), and the narrator simply notes their meeting before coming back to his own isolation. He stays at home gazing at the sunset, and it’s “paradise,” but a paradise of solitude. Then back outside, to all the people swarming around, and the camera zooms in one last time on Terry and Julie, who have only each other, escaping the tumult. They gaze at the same sunset. The music, starting with Pete Quaife’s loping bass line and Dave Davies’ statement of melodic theme, is steady and unhurried, there are spaces in it; the melody is lilting and graceful.

It’s all so quintessentially Kinkslike; it’s a song that couldn’t belong to anyone else. And yet so many artists, like the fictional cinematic Tucker Crowe, can’t help but be drawn to it: Bowie, Paul Weller, Elliott Smith, Peter Gabriel, Rhett Miller. Odd bedsitfellows Def Leppard. Twiggy, who figures prominently in My Generation, herself has covered it, as have the Pretenders and the charming duo First Aid Kit. It’s understandable, because it sounds like a modern standard, like a mid-‘60s British version of something like “Georgia On My Mind” or “Moonlight in Vermont.” It has geographical specificity, but a universal theme of wistful longing. Is the lyric a memory, perhaps? In Terry and Julie, is he remembering a lost love of his own, does the Waterloo sunset represent paradise lost, and is that where he wants to live? I could listen to this song forever, and probably will.

no deceit in the cauliflower

“Elaine May directed it, Neil Simon wrote it, Bruce Jay Friedman conceived it.” That was how the movie studio marketed The Heartbreak Kid in 1972, not in terms of storyline, or cast, or any thematic elements, but as the product of three marquee names behind the camera. It was based on Friedman’s short story “A Change of Plan” about a newlywed who, while on his honeymoon, gets romantically sidetracked by a beautiful girl who makes him rethink his very recent life decision. Simon was on fire commercially: The Last of the Red Hot Lovers was running on Broadway (and the film adaptation was released earlier in ’72), with The Sunshine Boys opening on stage, but the movie versions of his plays had been directed by Gene Saks and Arthur Hiller, and they were flat and workmanlike, elevated by their performers and Simon’s assured comic rhythms. People do love The Odd Couple and The Out-of-Towners, but there’s a creakiness about them. The Heartbreak Kid was different; it was darker, zippier, more surprising and offbeat. The jokes are still there, only without the rat-a-tat; some of the scenes have the loopy improvised tone of the best Mike Nichols and Elaine May routines. It’s one of the few Neil Simon-scripted films I can watch without wishing for considerably more of a modern directorial point of view (The Sunshine Boys has some wonderful moments, but boy, is it pokey and stagey).

Elaine May at that point had only directed one film, 1971’s A New Leaf, an amiable, sometimes inspired comedy that was radically edited by the studio and half-heartedly marketed, and Bruce Jay Friedman was known as a novelist and short-story writer (A Mother’s Kisses – the most painfully funny book about the Jewish Mother until Portnoy’s Complaint – and Far From the City of Class, among others), and playwright (Scuba Duba, Steambath). The Heartbreak Kid could have easily become a clash of sensibilities, but instead it was an early example of the comedy of discomfort, long scenes that make you squirm, elaborate set-pieces where Charles Grodin (the new groom) makes excuses to sneak off on Jeannie Berlin to spend time with Cybill Shepherd, a tantrum over pecan pie, Grodin trying to impress Shepherd’s Midwestern-WASP family with riffs on the honesty of the food at the dinner table (“There’s no insincerity in those potatoes. There’s no deceit in the cauliflower”). Simon’s writing has a looser vibe than usual, and May keeps the camera zeroed in on the layers of bemusement and disbelief as Grodin spins his escalating nonsense. From The Heartbreak Kid it’s a twisted line to Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Office (and to the Farrelly Brothers, who botched a Ben Stiller-starring remake, Garry Shandling and Judd Apatow).

What I found myself wishing for in Neil Simon’s work was the kind of nutty spritz he must have brought to the writers’ room when he was on Sid Caesar’s staff, a wildness and unpredictability. “Neil Simon was a clutch hitter,” Mel Brooks tweeted (that’s a phrase I never thought I’d type) when Simon passed away. “When we needed the punchline on Your Show of Shows he delivered.” I have no doubt. For pure throw-it-against-the-wall funniness, there’s 1978’s The Cheap Detective, which is pretty close to a movie-length Caesar sketch with Peter Falk doing a full-tilt Bogart homage. (It came the year after The Goodbye Girl, which was Simon as too-sentimental joke-machine.) And there’s a messy anarchy about his first film script, After the Fox (written with Cesare Zavattini, directed by Vittorio De Sica, starring Peter Sellers, music by Burt Bacharach).

Most of Simon’s on-screen work, regrettably, was done with directors who were asleep at the switch (not that material like Seems Like Old Times, Only When I Laugh and I Ought to Be in Pictures could have been elevated all that much), until he worked with Mike Nichols on Biloxi Blues. Maybe that assessment is ungenerous; maybe to really appreciate the crowd-pleasing talents of Neil Simon you had to have seen his plays in the ‘60s and ‘70s on Broadway and been delighted by his confident comic voice, honed — like Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen and Norman Lear — in the first golden age of television comedy. And I would like to mention that I’d really love to see Betty White and Cloris Leachman in a production of The Sunshine Girls, so someone please make that happen.

and when the night falls…

About three-quarters through the new Whitney Houston documentary – the second in the past year – director Kevin Macdonald drops the much-chattered-about bombshell about young Whitney being sexually molested by a relative (Dee Dee Warwick). There’s something off-key about the moment of revelation, like it’s supposed to be the “Rosebud” of Whitney, but by that point in the film we’ve been introduced to so many villains, enablers, suspects that we’re just exhausted. Isn’t this a summer film? Where is the superhero (Kevin Costner pops in to congratulate himself on the colorblind casting of The Bodyguard, and good for him, but he didn’t whisk her away in real life and shield her)? Not many people come off well here, not her family, certainly, not Bobby Brown or L.A. Reid (who ran Arista in the early 2000’s, when Whitney was in horrendous shape, but who claims on camera to have been unaware of her drug problem). The woman who seems to have cared the most about Whitney, Robyn Crawford, isn’t interviewed on screen, but is the subject of some nasty homophobia, and how about some blame for the state of affairs where Whitney was pressured to deny what was perhaps her healthiest relationship?

Whitney is crushingly sad, of course. And cinematically effective, if what you mean by that is that it keeps you in knots wishing there were something you could do to stop the relentless downward spiral. There are a lot of familiar scenes here: the incandescent TV debut on The Merv Griffin Show, the cascade of boos at the Soul Train Awards, the epic performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the catastrophic interview with Diane Sawyer. Macdonald seems to be in an awful hurry to get to the juicy stuff, like “yeah, yeah, all those hit records and awards and Hollywood, got it.” There’s not a lot of delving into her recording career which, you might think, would be kind of important. The first three Arista albums zip by in one of those montages that zoom in on the names of songs sprinting up the Billboard charts, like the singles were train stops in an old movie on TCM where a vaudeville act hits the road. One minute she’s on the Griffin show doing the song “Home” from The Wiz, and snap! she’s the biggest pop artist on the planet. How did that happen? Macdonald doesn’t say, really. She had a great voice and she was real pretty, I guess.

Whitney is in its way a valuable piece of the saga, thorough and definitive about how drugs derailed her; there’s some footage that is so raw and invasive that it’d have been nice if someone had tapped a cameraman on the shoulder and lead him into a hallway. But what Whitney is going to need at some point is a biographer to do for her what Peter Guralnick did for Elvis Presley, dig into the music and the cultural influences that shaped her, separate the accepted version of her story from the truth. What we’re always told is that the record label that signed her (confession for those who might not know: I worked there, was involved in her early publicity and marketing campaigns, and later was on Clive Davis’s A&R staff that searched for Whitney songs; one of the songs I suggested is in the movie) transformed her into a pop diva, steering her away from music that was too “black.”

Which is nonsense. If anyone was grooming Whitney Houston for a mainstream audience, it was her mom. There was some Mama Rose in Gypsy stuff going on (“Sing out, Whitney!!”), with an idea of what was classy, how a young lady in show biz should behave. When the labels started showing up at Cissy’s gigs to see what her teenaged daughter was up to, the younger Houston was all dolled up, and singing songs from The Wiz and Dreamgirls. And “The Greatest Love of All,” which she sang beautifully: it’s a song about self-belief and autonomy (“If I fail, if I succeed, at least I’ll live as I believe”), not walking in anyone else’s shadow, keeping one’s dignity, all that Oprahbabble. For better or worse, ok worse, that song came to define her before it was supplanted as her anthem by the Anthem, and by “I Will Always Love You.”

If anything, one mandate at Arista was to muss her up a bit, make her less pristine, more youthful. She may have walked in the door with “The Greatest Love of All,” and there were those other Michael Masser “All” ballads that followed – “Saving All My Love For You,” “All at Once,” Didn’t We Almost Have It All” (and “All the Man That I Need” which is not by Masser but might as well be) – but the records that have stuck the most engagingly are “How Will I Know,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” “So Emotional.” Whitney in the throes of infatuation, ready to break loose, cause some mischief. The playful Whitney is sometimes forgotten, because the ballads are so show-boaty, so filled with the drama we now associate with her life. But I loved that Whitney, the girlish one on “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” looking for a little bit of excitement: “When the night falls,” she sang, “my lonely heart calls.” You just wanted to take her hand, rescue her.

better hurry up and put my tie on…

Tick-tock. Listen to the clock. It’s five o’clock, but the singer, Eugene Pitt of the Jive Five from Brooklyn, New York, is already geared up, projecting three hours into the future. He has a date, and what you hear in his voice is all the pent-up anticipation and anxiety that leads to that instant when the girl opens the door and the rest of the night is stretched out in front of you, all the possibilities. Three hours to go, and then two, then one: the record marches forward, the group reminding Pitt, keeping track for him, like they’re in the room with him as he’s dabbing the Brylcreem and slapping on Old Spice. “Better hurry up,” they tell him in the bridge, and he realizes he needs to put his tie on; he wants to make a good impression. Tick-tock; his heart beats to that rhythm, or maybe quicker. Finally, it’s time for love. Does any vocal group R&B record capture the urgency, the drama of waiting? What is she going to be wearing? Where will the evening end? “What Time Is It,” by the team of Feldman, Goldstein and Gottehrer (“My Boyfriend’s Back,” “I Want Candy”), is one of the high points of the early ‘60s vocal group resurgence, Eugene Pitt’s crowning moment.

Eugene Pitt passed away this week. Coincidentally, I’d just been talking about the Jive Five with a friend the day before, raving about their I’m a Happy Man LP on United Artists. They are fading away, all those voices, the singers who expressed all our longings and desires. The other night, at a book promotion event for his memoir, Seymour Stein teared up when he sang a line from the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Nite (I’ll Remember),” and if that music – which, I keep reminding people, was never called doo wop when it was new, or even when the songs were being played as “oldies but goodies” – meant anything to you when you were young, it only takes a few bars to make you misty. I remember being ten years old and hearing the Jive Five’s “My True Story” on the radio and wondering, what is happening here? What is the singer (Pitt) so broken up about? “Cry, cry, cry,” was the constant refrain (the words “My True Story” are nowhere in the song), and the characters, Sue, Earl, Lorraine, how were they entangled? “Names have been changed dear,” Pitt confesses at the end, “to protect you and I.” There was mystery in it. What wasn’t he telling us?

I could riff on other records Pitt was at the center of, going back to the Genies’ “Who’s That Knocking,” flashing forward to the UA period of “I’m a Happy Man,” then to their incarnation as the Jyve Fyve. To their cover of Elton John’s “Come Down in Time” on Avco, and their endearing 1982 album Here We Are! on Ambient Sound Records, with guests Arlene Smith’s Chantels on “Don’t Believe Him Donna,” and an odd stab at Fagen and Becker’s “Hey Nineteen.” I have a strong affection for “Hully Gully Calling Time” (“Do the Frank Sinatra!!”) and F-G-G’s “Rain” (and their “Every Day Is Like a Year” that came out as a Pitt solo single on Beltone), and I know I’ll be pumping “Do You Hear Wedding Bells” when I tie the knot in the fall, because there aren’t too many records from that era that so giddily celebrate the prospect of marriage. But the one I keep returning to is “What Time Is It” from the summer of 1962, when I was too young to even contemplate what it would be like to ask a girl out, let alone put on a tie and summon up the courage to ring her doorbell. Tick-tock, listen to the clock. Eugene Pitt was taking that brave leap, so nervous that he has to ask the other four guys the time every hour. How much longer? How much longer now? The record builds: “The moment’s here at last,” and as his friends swoon behind him, he leaves them behind. He’ll take it from here.

“Petticoats of Portugal” and other non-hits of 1956

“Marty on Planet Mars (Parts 1 & 2”) by Marty on Novelty Records. The El Venos (from Pittsburgh) singing “Now We’re Together” (Groove Records). “I Wanna Be Seventeen All of My Life” by the Silver Sisters. The Dawn Breakers doing “Boy with the Be-Bop Glasses (and the Suede Shoes,” on Coral Records. You probably never heard of any of those records. I certainly hadn’t, and now I’m wondering what “be-bop glasses” were, what that Marty single might be like (it must be a combination of the character from the Delbert Mann film and the trend of break-in “Flying Saucer” records, right?), and what the advantages of what being seventeen forever might be. Never graduating high school? Avoiding the draft? Carrying around a fake I.D. forever? I really want to hear “Broadway at Basin Street” by The Four Beards on ABC-Paramount. They were a Brooklyn group, apparently, whose record only cracked the top 10 on WKXY in Sarasota, Florida. There has to be a backstory there.

Every once in a while over the last few days I’ve been picking up the 80-page book Cash Box Regional Hits 1956, presented by chart scholar Joel Whitburn, just combing the columns of names of 45s, artists and labels from that pivotal year, records that failed to make any of the national singles charts but had a moment of success on radio stations and juke boxes and in record stores in local areas, as reported in Cash Box magazine. We learn, for example, that the Dawn Breakers record was #5 on WKBW in Buffalo, NY, and was being played by the dj Herb Knight.

Nearly every page has something odd and fascinating. In November ’56, the Goons’ “I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas” was top 10 on WWIN in Baltimore. There were a lot of records of songs from My Fair Lady and The Most Happy Fella. Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” was top 10 in about a dozen local markets, and top 5 on the national R&B chart, but never crossed over to the pop singles chart. Columbia Records released a single by Joan Weber called “Goodbye Lollipops, Hello Lipstick (I’m Not a Baby Anymore),” a top 4 hit on Greenville, MS’s WGVM. 1956 is generally regarded as the year rock’n’roll made its Big Move, with the explosion of Elvis, and what these 1270 non-hits show us is that the music business was a crazy jumble, with labels large and small throwing everything out there: instrumentals (a lot of them), novelty records – like “Love is) The $64,000 Question” by Tony Travis on RCA Victor — vocal group R&B, rockabilly. There were great records on Atlantic (The Clovers, The Drifters, Chuck Willis, Clyde McPhatter) and Sun (Carl Perkins, Warren Smith), all now considered classics in their genre, but at the time falling short of the primary pop charts.

Steve Lawrence, on Coral, put out a cover of the Cadillacs’ “Speedo” (#6, WSAI Cincinnatti), and something called “Ethel, Baby” (#9, WAVZ New Haven). There were a lot of odd celebrity records: Steve Allen’s “What is a Freem?,” Jayne and Audrey Meadows’ “Dungaree Dan and Chino Sue,” Andy Griffith’s “No Time for Sergeants,” Danny Thomas’ “Nobody Knows But the Lord,” and “In the Middle of the House” by Milton Berle. The book helpfully tells is that Uncle Miltie was “the biggest TV star of the 1950s,” but who doesn’t know that? (Famous Berle joke: A comic kept challenging Berle to a size contest, and finally, fed up with the pestering, someone told Milton to “just take out enough to win.”)

It was a nutty year, with all those “Flying Saucer” rip-offs, tributes to James Dean, those twinkling instrumentals like “Petticoats of Portugal,” so many drippy ballads. But what you take away from Cash Box Regional Hits 1956 is all the excitement that was churning up below (literally: beneath the lists of official hits) the surface. Flip the pages, and the narrative starts to emerge, the local hits on non-major labels that are about to crack American music in half, from Lee Allen’s “Rockin’ at Cosmo’s” to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” (that wasn’t a national hit??) to the Dells’ “Oh What a Nite” (top 5 R&B, but only Arnie Ginsburg at WBOS Boston reported it as top 5 in pop world), Smiley Lewis’ “One Night.”

There’s a randomness to this book, and there’s no way you can interpret it as being statistically reliable; as Whitburn says in the introduction, there were 42 dj, 21 retail, and 21 juke box top 10 reports published in Cash Box each week, so it was really a spin of the wheel which 45s got mentioned in any given issue. There was likely some payola involved, some favors called in. But the randomness makes total pop sense. You could imagine an entirely different book of a thousand 1956 singles on small record labels that got airplay for a week or so in some market and then faded into even more complete obscurity. Look at the labels on the cover: Balboa Records, Pep Records, Turquoise Records, Selma Records, Buddy Records…each record representing an idea that the three minutes of music captured on it will be heard everywhere. Some of the singles in this book have reverberated for six decades, most were relatively invisible even then. That’s a key story of American pop, and I can’t wait for the 1957 volume

not the only starfish in the sea

What if producer Tom Wilson didn’t have the notion of augmenting the acoustic recording of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”? What if, disheartened by the lackluster reception given to the Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. album, Simon went to England (that’s what happened in real life), wrote the song “Red Rubber Ball” with Bruce Woodley of the Seekers, and that became a big pop hit (also true: by the Cyrkle; they also wrote “Cloudy” together, although when it turned up on a S&G LP, Simon’s name stood there alone). Back in New York City, where Simon had hustled around midtown Manhattan trying to cobble together a hitmaking career, his more serious, introspective, let’s say Dylanesque, efforts were not greeted with universal enthusiasm. As Dave Van Ronk recalled in his memoir, for a while, in order to get a guaranteed laugh in Village circles, all you had to do was start singing “Hello, darkness, my old friend.” And you’d have to admit, I think, that’s a howler of a line. (Simon was fond of addressing things that had no ability to respond: “Hey, sunshine,” in “Cloudy,” “Hello, lamppost,” in “The 59th Street Bridge Song.”) Most of the song is a cascade of nonsense. Does a vision really leave seeds? Is there such a thing as “talking without speaking”? Talking without meaning, maybe.

In his new biography of Simon, Robert Hilburn offers the thesis that it took a while for Simon’s songwriting gift to flower. Hilburn told the website Best Classic Bands, “In fact, he spent five years after high school in the lower rungs of the New York City record business, writing songs, recording demos, trying to get his own records released—and all he was really doing was copying the most generic pop-rock on the radio. There wasn’t even a glimmer of artistry or even promise in all those recordings.” That’s a bit ungenerous. It is true that among the many recordings Simon made under the name Jerry Landis, or as Tico in Tico & the Triumphs, or as Tom in Tom & Jerry, are major clunkers such as the one Hilburn points to, “The Lipstick on Your Lips.” But there are some kind of charming efforts as well, like “I Wish I Weren’t In Love,” a shameless rip-off of Dion & the Belmonts’ “A Teenager in Love.” I confess that, on balance, I would rather hear Simon’s novelty singles “Motorcycle” and “The Lone Teen Ranger” than “I Am a Rock” and “The Dangling Conversation.”

Simon was a student of pop, and a gifted mimic. He and Garfunkel could approximate Don and Phil Everly. According to Burt Bacharach, quoted in Hilburn’s book, he got Simon to do a demo for a song he was going to pitch to Frankie Avalon, and you can hear in some of the “Jerry Landis” songs how adept Simon was at emulating that smarmy faux-innocence. Marty Cooper, who sang with Simon in Tico & the Triumphs, recalls, “He was constantly monitoring the radio, looking for new ideas…One day he’d tell us about the gentle way that the leader of the Fleetwoods [Gary Troxel] sang.” I’d always heard traces of the Fleetwoods in the wispier side of Simon & Garfunkel (what was “Mr. Blue” except the kind of forlorn lament Simon made a specialty of?), and the connection makes complete sense. You get the idea that given time, Simon would have found the right combination of elements, that if “The Sound of Silence” wouldn’t have been commercially rescued by the Wilson session overdubs, he’d have moved on from Garfunkel. Maybe into a group like the Lovin’ Spoonful or the Mama’s and the Papa’s, the Seekers or the Cyrkle. Whatever was hot and happening.

His association with Bruce Woodley yielded “Cloudy” (although Woodley has insisted it was like pulling teeth to get Simon to acknowledge it), the completely lovely “I Wish You Could Be Here” (cut by both the Seekers and the Cyrkle; a few years earlier it would have been perfect for the Fleetwoods, like Randy Newman’s “They Tell Me It’s Summer”), and “Red Rubber Ball.” The Cyrkle’s version was released in spring 1966, in between S&G’s “Homeward Bound” and “I Am a Rock,” on the same label (Columbia), and although both S&G singles hit the top 5, “Red Rubber Ball” landed a little bit higher at #2. And it holds up better. It shows that Simon (with a collaborator?) could have knocked off catchy pop hits at will; the song is a skip and jump into the sunlight (goodbye, darkness!) after being dumped. “Now I know you’re not the only starfish in the sea,” it goes. “If I never hear your name again it’s all the same to me.” Was it too frivolous for Paul and Art to cut, too simple, not “freshly fallen silent shroud of snow”ish enough? “Friendship causes pain!” Does it? Well, Simon had his books and his poetry to protect him, and nice for him.

Simon & Garfunkel started doing “Red Rubber Ball” live after it became a hit for the Cyrkle (jauntily produced by John Simon, no relation), so maybe they did have a twinge of regret about giving it away. But I don’t see it on the setlists for Simon’s current farewell tour, which in a way is too bad. If nothing else, it’s like a sliding door into an alternate Paul Simon career. It feels casual and tossed-off, not labored over and literary. Hilburn is right that it took a while for Simon’s songwriting talent to click into place, but I believe he’s wrong about when that happened; the writer who found his groove on Bookends – especially the singles on side two – began with “I should have known you’d bid me farewell,” not “Hello, darkness, my old friend.”

“Brenda shook the wetness of her hair onto my face and with the drops that touched me I felt she had made a promise to me about the summer, and, I hoped, beyond.” – Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus

Goodbye, Columbus is, when you get down to it, a story about a summer romance. It’s about many other things, class, race, Jewishness, but it begins at a country club swimming pool at the start of the summer, where Brenda Patimkin asks Neil Klugman to hold her glasses, and ends at the start of fall, when Brenda is back at school in Boston. The movie version came out in 1968 when I was seventeen years old and working in a jeans store on east Fordham Road in the Bronx, and every time a pretty girl walked into Kerkers to try on Landlubber bell-bottoms, I looked for the glimmer, the slightest trace, of Ali MacGraw. Who was no actress, not really, but she was able to give the banter in the early scenes – much taken directly from Philip Roth’s novella – an edgy, snooty sexiness. Goodbye, Columbus, the movie, is in most ways that matter, a mess. It’s crudely directed, cartoonish and clichéd. But those scenes between MacGraw and Richard Benjamin were, to a Jewish kid wrapping up his freshman year at Lehman College girlfriendless, aspirational. I hadn’t yet read any of Philip Roth’s books, but he already was starting to work his way into my life.

A little bit later in the summer of ’68, in a lounge chair at the bungalow colony in Rockland County where we went to escape, I picked up the copy of New American Review #3, a literary paperback/magazine where the lead story was Roth’s “Civilization and Its Discontents.” There is some familial disagreement about how NAR #3 found its way into our bungalow. I insist that I bought it at a drugstore “in town” because there was an article in it by Albert Goldman called “The Emergence of Rock,” and Rock was, in addition to the fruitless longing for a Brenda of my own, the subject that occupied most of my waking thoughts. My sister is equally convinced that she was the one who took it off the book rack, and we have argued about this for decades even though it obviously is of no importance.

What is of major importance is that “Civilization and Its Discontents,” narrated by a character named Alexander Portnoy, was shocking. It had never occurred to me that anyone could write like that, in that voice, about that subject matter, with that level of candor. It was an extended riff on the Jewish family – the Jewish mother in particular, and I had one – and the sexual rampage that goes on in the mind of the Jewish boy. Most people focused on the fact that there was an unusual amount of jerking off for a literary endeavor (although not unusual, perhaps, for the average kid from Newark, or the Bronx). But what floored me was not the sex stuff, but the slashing humor, the observations, the cadence of Jewish family conversation, the impoliteness of the whole thing. Like Tom Wolfe, whose articles on Phil Spector and Murray the K I’d devoured in another book that shaped my ideas about writing (The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby), Roth wrote in a breathless, hyper-fueled voice. It was like a release of everything we were not supposed to acknowledge, our repressed libidos, sure, but also the oppressive expectations of our parents, our teachers, who seemed most concerned with us being well-behaved, the one thing we most did not want to be. Roth, like Dylan and the Rolling Stones, gave us a permission slip. He was like a literary Lenny Bruce, only funnier.

I didn’t know while I was reading NAR #3 that the Philip Roth story was a preview of the book that would become Portnoy’s Complaint, and that the novel would become a sensation, and make him a celebrity, any of that. All I knew fifty years ago, in the summer of ’68, was that Goodbye, Columbus (the movie; I read the book a bit later) and “Civilization and Its Discontents” were giving me new ideas about what I wanted, what could be said and how. No writer of fiction meant so much to me for so long.