sorrows and promises and songs of farewell

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There is more than one Great American Songbook, or let’s say that the Great American Songbook has many chapters. The phrase has become shorthand for the songs written mostly before and right after World War II by such composers and lyricists as Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer and the Gershwins, but our musical history is more sprawling and diverse than that. The Great American Songbook is a multi-volume anthology that ranges over decades and over a geographical area longer than Route 66 and wider than Tin Pan Alley. It includes country songs by Hank Williams, Willie Nelson and Harlan Howard, blues by Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson and Jimmy Reed, rock and roll by Chuck Berry, Pomus and Shuman and Leiber and Stoller. And soul music, western swing, the modern jazz that Chuck Berry had no kick against.

The idea behind Sorrows and Promises is one that took hold years ago when I started to see many albums paying tribute to the great songwriters who worked in the Brill Building and at 1650 Broadway, people like Goffin and King, Mann and Weil, Barry and Greenwich, Bacharach and David. Growing up in the 1960s in New York City, I was in awe of the pop and R&B records being made in midtown Manhattan, but I was also affected by the songs that were coming from a few miles south. Songs by Bob Dylan, of course, but also by Phil Ochs, Eric Andersen and Richard Farina, and a bit later by Tim Hardin, John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful, Fred Neil and Paul Simon. One of my earliest rock heroes, Dion, from The Bronx, was influenced by downtown folk and blues, and I found out that Buddy Holly was living and writing in Greenwich Village, at The Brevoort on Fifth Avenue, right before he died in 1959, making demos in his apartment, taking his guitar to Washington Square. In a way, he was one of the earliest of the generation of singer-songwriters who went on to shape the scene and the sensibility of the 1960s, and it made perfect sense for Carolyn Hester to cut his “Lonesome Tears” on her album That’s My Song alongside a few by Tom Paxton.

As a record label A&R person, I wanted to do an album that brought all these writers under one roof, made the connections between Buddy Holly and Phil Ochs, between Dion and Lou Reed, Richard & Mimi Farina and Janis Ian. I thought about an album that explored the depth, variety and complexity of the music being written in the 1960s (and just over a year before the start of the decade, in the case of Holly) in downtown New York City. There is a tendency to think of the ‘60s Village songwriters as a group of political activists with acoustic guitars, ripping songs from the headlines. That was a big part of it. Richie Havens told me about the effect it had on him when he walked into a Village club and heard, for the first time, Dylan sing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and I was at a number of concerts and rallies in the ‘60s where Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton sang pointed songs of protest.

But there was, as the Fred Neil song said, another side to this life. You can hear, in songs like Eric Andersen’s “Close The Door Lightly,” a poetic approach to the more tender side of Buddy Holly. John Sebastian’s songs for the Spoonful electrified folk with as much sheer joy and invention as The Byrds, with elements of jug band music, ragtime and the easy-rollin’ Americana of Hoagy Carmichael. Tim Hardin sketched perfect, haunting songs about intimacy and miscommunication (“Do you think I’m not aware of what you’re saying or why you’re saying it?”). Phil Ochs balanced the defiance of “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore” with the touching meditation on mortality “When I’m Gone.” The album I envisioned would gather together a dozen or so of those songs and, I hoped, put them in the context they deserved, as songs that belonged in any definition of the Great American Songbook.

The New Wave of New York songwriters were like the French New Wave filmmakers, breaking with convention, stirring up trouble, demolishing the wall that existed between pop and folk. Kids listened to Top 40 radio and bought 45’s, and the assumption was that this was a phase to be outgrown, that pop was disposable and frivolous, and sometime after the high school prom, childish things would be put aside and the audience would buy folk and jazz LP’s. You didn’t see many pop acts on college campuses; that was Baez and Brubeck territory. And if the occasional folk song made its way into the pop charts – “If I Had A Hammer,” say, or “Walk Right In,” or “Blowin’ In The Wind,” or “Michael (Row The Boat Ashore)” – that was a novelty, not an artistic compromise. But the folk scene of the New Frontier, the world where Hootenanny! was a prime-time network television show and a catch-all term for the mainstream marketing of folk music, was upended in 1964 when The Beatles came to the U.S.A. (February) and Bob Dylan went into Columbia Studios (June) with his producer Tom Wilson to record what the label pointedly titled Another Side of Bob Dylan. It was an album that contained one of his most enduring “protest songs,” “Chimes of Freedom,” but also had (and ended with) the kiss-off “It Ain’t Me Babe” (“it’s not me you’re looking for,” he says) and “My Back Pages”:
Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

How could anyone writing songs not be rattled by what Lennon & McCartney and Dylan were up to? ’64-’65 was the tail end of the Folk Revival (a period cinematically rendered by Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind and the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis). The “folk” guys – because what else could you call them? They were mostly male, wielded acoustic guitars and played the folk clubs – were all chasing Dylan around at first, inspired and emboldened by his success as a crusader-troubadour, and now they had this whole other world-shaking thing to contend with. It became a mad scramble, peaking in spring-summer 1965 when The Byrds’ shimmering folk a go-go version of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” became a number one single and Dylan, members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Al Kooper got on stage amped and amplified at the Newport Folk Festival, played “Like A Rolling Stone” and a couple of other songs and started an epic battle worthy of an episode-nine of Game of Thrones. Within days, it seemed, there were bands like the Spoonful and the Blues Project, who saw an opportunity to make a joyous, category-defying noise. That June, Tom Wilson took the spare, vocals-and-one-guitar original version of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” and overdubbed it with electric guitar, bass and drums. Any notion that the citadel of folk purism would hold was folly.

Where was folk-rock born? Maybe in L.A., where even the Byrds were preceded by Jackie DeShannon doing Dylan. Maybe in Liverpool, where The Searchers jangled up “What Have They Done To The Rain” and George Harrison picked up the Rickenbacker guitar that was an inspiration to Jim (later Roger) McGuinn when he saw A Hard Day’s Night. Maybe in San Francisco, where the Beau Brummels’ “Laugh Laugh” and “Just A Little” (produced by Sylvester Stewart, later known as Sly Stone) had all the sonic elements later associated with folk-rock. Some people call The Animals’ “The House of the Rising Sun” the first folk-rock hit. Or maybe it was Trini Lopez’s “If I Had A Hammer.” By 1964, the foundation was already in place for a more inclusive approach to folk music. McGuinn had been a guitarist on Bobby Darin’s Golden Folk Hits LP that featured a couple of Dylan songs. You can hear traces of it in Dion’s mournful folk-blues from the early ‘60s. Hell, as early as 1963, Joan Baez was doing The Majors’ “She’s A Troublemaker” in her set. At a ’64 Broadside session, Phil Ochs brought Eric Andersen up to share vocals and sing harmony on Lennon & McCartney’s “I Should Have Known Better,” and although the term “folk-rock” was a year away, that’s kind of what it was.

It was a point of no return, and the anything-goes eclecticism was a natural fit for the musicians and writers gathered south of 14th Street in NYC. You could walk around on any given night, drop into the Bitter End, Café Wha, The Night Owl, The Gaslight Café, Café A Go-Go, Folk City and see blues giants John Lee Hooker and Skip James, singers like Richie Havens doing Fred Neil’s “The Bag I’m In” and Ray Charles’ “Drown In My Own Tears.” Tim Hardin was singing his own songs as well as “Stagger Lee” and Neil’s “Blues On The Ceiling.” There were New York-based record companies like Elektra, Verve Folkways/Forecast, Vanguard and Columbia – and newer ones popping up like Kama Sutra – taking a chance on all this music (except for Holly, all of the songs on this album were originally cut for one of those labels). And there were critics in the city, at papers like the Village Voice and the New York Times, sending out bulletins about what was happening downtown.

The Blues Project’s first album had songs by Chuck Berry, Eric Andersen and Bo Diddley, and the repertoire of the Spoonful’s debut was a combination of jug band staples, vibrant originals, and a song, “You Baby,” that was by the midtown writing team of Mann & Weil with Phil Spector. In this new world, everything was up for grabs, no more folk snobbery. Tom Rush cut full-tilt rock and roll, Baez sang “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” in The T.N.T. Show, Ian and Sylvia recorded Bacharach & David’s “Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa” (a hit for Gene Pitney), Simon & Garfunkel owed their sound to more to The Everly Brothers and doo-wop than to the Limelighters and the Brothers Four, and when Shadow Morton produced Janis Ian, he must have realized how much in common, thematically and emotionally, her songs of adolescent angst had with the soap-opera pop records he made with The Shangri-Las.

What Lennon & McCartney and Dylan did was write everyone a creative permission slip: don’t be tied down. Language can be more elliptical, song structure more experimental, instrumentation more varied. Wasn’t the folk movement about Freedom, ultimately? The conviction that you could change the world with a song and a guitar, an idea as much about Chuck Berry and Hank Williams as Woody Guthrie. It didn’t always have to be about the news that was fit to sing. Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “It Ain’t Me Babe” were, I think, as important and as influential as “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” because they were hard-edged break-up songs, matter-of-fact and even cruel (“You just kind of wasted my precious time”). They weren’t unrequited-love songs, or torch songs, they were about restlessness and the impulse to move on, walk on down that long lonesome road, babe.

This album could have been called Sorrows and Promises and Farewells: “The Road I’m On (Gloria)” (“Now I’ve gotta roam”) “ Close The Door Lightly” (“Who was the one who robbed my time?”) “The Other Side to This Life” (I don’t know where I’m going next, I don’t know who I’m gonna be”) are all fare-thee-wells without undue sentiment, songs of freedom. Even Holly’s “Learning The Game” is more resigned than self-pitying: “When you love her and she doesn’t love you/You’re only learning the game.” And other songs are about couples at cross-purposes, romantic indecision, grown-up stuff. It was a writing renaissance that changed how folk albums were imagined: in 1962, Judy Collins’ Golden Apples of the Sun was almost completely comprised of “Trad” songs, but by ’64 she was releasing a live album with material by Tom Paxton, Fred Neil, John Phillips and Bob Dylan, and her next studio album had Richard Farina’s “Pack Up Your Sorrows,” Phil Ochs’ “In the Heat of the Summer,” Eric Andersen’s “Thirsty Boots” and two by Dylan. Joan Baez/5, released in late ’64, had Dylan, Ochs and Farina (and Johnny Cash) songs. It was going to be a long, slow period for “Trad.”

The second half of the ‘60s was about the freedom to form the Velvet Underground and shock even patrons of clubs on St. Mark’s Place, who’d seen just about everything. It was about bands like The Fugs, The Youngbloods, The Flying Machine (featuring singer-songwriter James Taylor), The New Journeymen and The Mugwumps (with members who combined to become Mama’s and Papa’s). It was about teenagers like Janis Ian, whose “Society’s Child” was a racially-charged version of girl group songs like “He’s A Rebel,” and the pop group The Cyrkle having a hit with “Red Rubber Ball,” co-written by Paul Simon.

One night in 2015, I ran into Richard Barone at City Winery, and hastily pitched the concept of Sorrows and Promises to him. I’d been a fan of Richard’s for a long time (and raved about his albums with The Bongos and with James Mastro in the pages of Creem and High Fidelity) and thought he’d be the perfect artist to interpret these songs. We started bouncing ideas around. I wanted it to be an album that recognized connections. Phil Ochs singing Buddy Holly songs at Carnegie Hall. A Paul Simon song about Greenwich Village, produced by Tom Wilson, who also did a nocturnal version of Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine” with Nico, who was in a band with Lou Reed, who inducted Dion (also produced by Wilson) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (and Dion, of course, was on the same tour on which Buddy Holly was killed, and Holly’s spot on the next scheduled date was filled by Bobby Vee, for whom Dylan played piano). Fred Neil writing “The Other Side to This Life,” a song covered by the Youngbloods and the Lovin’ Spoonful, whose first album’s back cover has Tim Hardin’s name scrawled on a wall.

Lists of writers and songs went flying back and forth, and much hand-wringing was done about whom had to be left off: Toms Paxton and Rush, Jesse Colin Young with the Youngbloods and Al Kooper with the Blues Project, Tim Buckley and David Blue. Where are Jim & Jean and Ian & Sylvia? What about the writers who settled in the west, James Taylor, John Phillips, Jackson Browne? How can there not be songs by Laura Nyro and Buffy Sainte-Marie? It would have been fun to show how the folk-and-jug-band scene rippled towards San Francisco and affected bands such as Jefferson Airplane (another band that covered “The Other Side to This Life”), the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and The Fish and Quicksilver Messenger Service. There are so many individual New York stories woven into Sorrows and Promises: Buddy Holly, alone with his guitar and a tape recorder on lower Fifth Avenue, the Velvet Underground at the Electric Circus on St, Mark’s, the Lovin’ Spoonful at The Night Owl on West 3rd. Paul Simon taking the subway from Queens to Bleecker Street. “Voices leaking from a sad café.” These are some of those voices.

the last dance

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“Save the Last Dance for Me” by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman never fails to get to me. It’s a song that has resignation and resolve: the singer might be addressing the woman he loves as she whirls around the floor with another man, or it might be an inner monologue. Please, he could be thinking, don’t get swept away. The chorus begins with the words “don’t forget.” This is sung as a limited permission slip. Famously, the lyric was written by the wheelchair-bound Pomus watching his bride dance with other men at their wedding, and no matter who sings the song, you can hear the underlying frustration. Because the music sounds sweeping and romantic, it implies a happy ending. “Don’t forget who’s taking you home and in whose arms you’re gonna be,” and there’s a certainty in that “gonna.” But what if that’s not the case? What if, after the last dance, she goes off and leaves him alone?

Leonard Cohen was doing “Save the Last Dance for Me” for a while in concert, as a closing number, a bookend to his own “Dance Me to the End of Love.” Cohen had a lot of songs that were natural set enders. “Closing Time,” of course. “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” “So Long, Marianne,” “Take This Waltz,” “Bird On a Wire.” What was it about his songs that so many sound like parting words, like after any one of them he could have bowed and shuffled off into the wings? “Tower of Song,” “Famous Blue Raincoat” (with its literal signature, “Sincerely, L. Cohen”).” “Hallelujah,” too obviously.

When he died suddenly, I was out at another artist’s arena show, and became wrapped up in all that spectacle and emotion, but when I came home, I had to put on Leonard Cohen’s music, even though I was tired, and in the morning I played his Live in Dublin album, the one that ends with “Save the Last Dance for Me.” The girl who didn’t forget who was taking her home was sitting next to me on the sofa, teared up and couldn’t really explain why. Maybe if this is, as seems possible, America’s last dance, we know we need people to count on and to cling to. I think of Cohen, gracefully leaving the stage before he got to see the calamity that a number of his songs predicted, before the new sheriff in town comes in to break up the dance. The audience sings it along with him, because everybody knows this song, everyone has felt its rapturous tug. No matter what happens, hold on tight to the person in whose arms you’re meant to be. So long.

hang suite

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Sometimes I get asked what music I’m proudest of being involved with in the years I did A&R, an impossible question, but when the conversation turns in that direction, the title that pops into my head is Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite. Maybe because it was so difficult to get on the major-label runway, because everyone had different reasons why it wouldn’t work, different explanations about how it didn’t fit what was happening in black music two decades ago. The cassette had come to my office from a publishing company. I was looking for some songs, or maybe a possible writing collaborator, for another artist on Columbia, and although nothing on the tape felt like the right fit, it got under my skin; I heard echoes of music that I’d grown up with and loved, early Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye, some of the great R&B and doo wop singers like Clyde McPhatter, Pookie Hudson and Lee Andrews. And the music was slinky and sexy. It made unexpected twists, had a seductive pulse. The tape said “Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite,” and I had no idea who this Maxwell was, but I thought I should find out.

Not long after that, we met up at my office at Columbia, talked about what he thought this could be, and that began a long, long process of doing what it made sense to do: sign Maxwell to Columbia Records and help him fulfill what was already in embryonic form in the songs on the cassette, songs like “The Big Umbrella” which didn’t make it onto the album, and “Til The Cops Come Knockin’,” which did. There were executives at the label to argue with, hurdles to jump over at every stage, but Maxwell never lost focus, never stopped molding and shaping the music. When I thought songs were completed, it turned out that they weren’t: there were phone calls at home at all hours from him, wanting to re-sing or re-write or re-mix, because although no one else would notice, he would. He aimed for the platonic ideal of the record. And it came out as brilliantly as he’d hoped, an album that spoke to a new romanticism that had been missing in so much synthetic, inorganic R&B. Some people started calling it neo-soul, and that was fine. What it was, was ubiquitous.

Because finally, once all the smoke cleared and all the skirmishes – over artwork, over the title for God’s sake – were over, what was left was seamless and pure and beautiful. It had a flow to it, from the opening instrumental “Urban Theme” leading into “Welcome,” to the catchy come-on “Sumthin’ Sumthin,” to the simple elegance of “Whenever Wherever Whatever”…There were hits on the album – “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)” could not be denied – but this was an album that was devoured as an album. You heard it everywhere you went in the city, in restaurants and stores, coming from cars and windows. It’s a remarkable experience, hearing something you’ve lived with from its earliest stages through its growing pains and to completion, being so universally embraced, moving so many people. Only a handful of individuals know all the hidden history of Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, and I feel bound by the code of artist-A&R confidentiality to keep most of that unsaid. What matters most twenty years later is the impression it made and continues to make. There wasn’t a moment in the process when Maxwell wasn’t completely confident about what he was up to, and I hope that as he celebrates the 20th Anniversary of his Hang Suite, it gives him tremendous satisfaction to know he was right about everything.

the great imposter

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In 1977 I got my hands on an import copy of My Aim Is True and raved about it for Creem, and that began a nearly forty year off-and-on conversation with Elvis Costello, where he did most of the talking, except when I would chime in with an occasional album review. There were shows at the start (Bottom Line) and end (Ukranian Ballroom) of the first U.S. tour, and over the decades quite a number of times when I’d check on what he was up to: shows with Burt Bacharach in NYC and London, a post-Katrina benefit with Allen Toussaint, solo shows along the way, the great Spinning Wheel parties where anything was up for grabs. It’s crazy to think about how long this has been going on, because when he made himself known, there was something so urgent and immediate about it that it felt like a brushfire that might flame out before too long. It was a breathless sprint – This Year’s Model felt dashed off on a vitriolic bender – and yet not long after that (four full-tilt albums in between in three years, plus enough random songs to make up another one) came 1981’s Imperial Bedroom, and if anyone hadn’t already been convinced that Costello had long-distance potential, this was an album that you would think was undeniable: thoughtful, impassioned, maybe a little fussier than the first couple of LPs, but impressive in a different way. It was his grown-up album, written in his mid-twenties, recorded under more professional conditions with a new producer, and the collection of songs – “Man Out of Time,” “Shabby Doll,” “…And In Every Home,” a dozen more – made a decisive leap forward from his previous albums of originals, Trust (the next pre-Imperial Bedroom album, Almost Blue, was a batch of country covers, so who knew whether Costello had simply exhausted himself or not?).

Elvis brought his band the Imposters back to New York for shows at the Beacon that focused on Imperial Bedroom, but unlike the last album-centric gig I saw there, Brian Wilson doing Pet Sounds, and unlike every other recent show I’ve attended with the same basic premise (Springsteen doing The River, Stevie Wonder recreating Songs in the Key of Life), there was no attempt to treat the album in question as a text that needed to be adhered to, a sequential concert that takes away the element of surprise but lets the audience settle in on a familiar ride. With Springsteen, after a few shows, you felt as though he’d gotten himself in a trap: it was billed as a River-in-its-entirety show, and it’s a long fucking album, and once he’d done five or six songs from it, there was a mood shift in the room: Oh, this is really what we’re doing, there’s no turning back now, and the track listing lodged itself in your head. There was no reason for it. He could have announced shows that were River-intensive, and done concerts that were like the actual concerts from that 1980-1981 tour. After a while, everyone realized it was an idea that worked better in theory than in front of big, diverse crowds, so Springsteen chucked it out the car window.

That’s why the Elvis Imperial Bedroom show was such a triumph, why it should serve as a blueprint for anyone figuring out how to do the “album” show without locking in fifteen or twenty songs in an exact order (Pet Sounds is short, and flows beautifully, so it’s not as much of a commitment). Elvis stopped a few times during the set to talk about how Imperial Bedroom evolved, where the songs came from, what the recording experience was like, but he wove those songs into a broader picture, made space (the show was called Imperial Bedroom & Other Chambers) for a song from the collaboration with Bacharach, for “hits” (“Watching the Detectives,” “Every Day I Write the Book,” “Accidents Will Happen”), for Toussaint’s “On Your Way Down” and a couple of songs from This Year’s Model. You can imagine other artists doing this kind of thing, Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Neil Young, artists who aren’t so much burdened by a cluster of hit songs that they need to do (although I can’t imagine that Costello thinks he can leave a venue without singing “Alison” and “Pump It Up”), have decades of great songs, and might like the idea of the album show where the album is just a central idea, a planet around which the rest of the repertoire orbits.

the triumph of vulnerability

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There were moments at Brian Wilson’s concert last weekend at the Beacon Theater that reminded me what, exactly, the pervasive anti-Mike Love sentiment is rooted in. Brian’s music is all about uncertainty and vulnerability; you root for him as a performer because his on-stage presence is so precarious, and because that fragility matches his best songs. By coming across as an arrogant prick, Mike Love strips those songs of what makes them so touching. Think of “Don’t Worry Baby,” a song that takes place on the eve of a drag race, so it fits in the Beach Boys’ car-song canon (note: almost all of the the lyrics of those songs that turn auto-imagery into poetry are by Roger Christian or Gary Usher), but it’s really about dread, the sinking feeling that the singer is in too deep. Or listen to present-day Brian struggle through “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” “That’s Not Me,” or the other songs that make up Pet Sounds’ song cycle of doubt, longing and loss. Love can call his self-aggrandizing memoir Good Vibrations, because he thinks of the Beach Boys as a party band. Which they were, sometimes, and once literally (on the album their version of “Barbara Ann” comes from). But he misses the point. He’s like a cheerleader, and an unbearable ham. He’s the guy who still thought it was a kick to sing “Monster Mash” live in 1965, years after the novelty had worn off.

The current Brian Wilson show can bring you to tears for any number of reasons. There’s the whole fountain of goodwill that overflows in the room, the sense that we’re lucky he’s able to do this at all considering all the well-documented tsouris that befell him after a combination of Love’s hostility towards Smile and other factors sent him spiraling. (And while we’re at it, let’s call Love on his complete bullshit regarding the Pet Sounds/Smile era. Would it kill him to admit that Brian’s music baffled him, that he didn’t see the commercial viability, and that he was worried that the value of the Beach Boys franchise would be diminished without obvious hit singles? It’s ok to have creative disagreements within a band, and in retrospect it would’ve made more sense for Brian, Carl, Dennis and whomever else was on board to tell Love to fuck off and start his own stupid band with his own songs.)

Then there is the music itself, of course, which is beautifully rendered by a band that gets all the nuances, and singers who cover nicely for Brian’s diminished vocal range. The truth is, a few decades ago, the whole notion of being in a theater and seeing Brian Wilson and an army of musicians recreate some of his best songs would have been wildly improbable. And really, with Al Jardine singing lead on “Shut Down,” “Little Deuce Coupe” and “Help Me Rhonda” (which he did on the hit single), and Jardine’s son Matt taking the high notes throughout, and secret weapon Darian Sahanaja doing “Darling” (he should’ve done “Wild Honey” also, because Blondie Chapin botched it), who needs a Mike Love version of the Beach Boys at all? He might own the name – a good thing for him, because “Mike Love” couldn’t fill the Beacon’s lower level – but the music is forever Brian’s. And when it mattered the most, on “God Only Knows” and “Caroline No,” you held your breath in suspense, and felt every word. No one who only has the brand can ever take that away. It was ragged and heartfelt and, in its way, perfect.

the year that rock imploded

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David Hepworth’s book Never a Dull Moment is subtitled “1971 The Year That Rock Exploded,” and let’s start with the dubious premise that in order to make that case stick he has to claim that Don McLean’s strained, torturous “American Pie” is “one of the first great pop records that is about great pop records.” That’s just wacky: to a large extent, pop music has always been self-referential; a lot of the earliest rock & roll records were about rock & roll itself, and anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of pop history could fill multiple blog posts about “great pop records” that were about “great pop records.” In “Havin’ A Party,” just the first that pops into my head, Sam Cooke implores the DJ he’s addressing to keep playing hits like “Soul Twist” and “I Know.” Hell, you can go back to the big band era and “Juke Box Saturday Night” for an example of a song that quotes from other, prior songs, and let’s not get started on things like “Those Oldies But Goodies (Remind Me of You)” and “Memories of El Monte.” But the book is filled with nonsense like that. Right at the top, Hepworth states definitively that ’71 was “the busiest, most creative, most innovative, most interesting, and longest-resounding year of that era.” Which just isn’t true, even if that last qualifier – “of that era” – means the era from 1970 to 1972.

Hepworth and I are around the same age, and no doubt bought dozens of the same albums in 1971, so I can understand the underlying romanticism about a period of time that coincided with an intense interest in every single thing that was happening in rock. But in order to canonize that particular year above all others, you’d have to buy into the idea that rock got better after the Beatles broke up, when Dylan was floundering around, years after Brian Wilson passed his creative peak, and after Jimi Hendrix died. You’d have to ignore the fact that two of the best bands of that period, the Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival, released relatively unimpressive albums in ’71. In a recent piece I wrote for a music website, I pronounced emphatically that 1966 was the “best” year, and even if you take issue with that, you couldn’t (or shouldn’t) argue that Revolver, Blonde on Blonde and Pet Sounds don’t represent some apex of achievement for those artists, especially compared to what they were up to in ’71. To advocate for ’71, you almost have to contradict the idea of a rock pantheon and disregard the fact that the artists that sit atop it did their best work in other years.

Look at Hepworth’s list of the 100 albums that are, we assume, evidence of why he’s right about everything he says in the prior pages. In nearly every case, the albums were preceded or followed by better ones by the same artist: Tupelo Honey, Madman Across the Water, Pendulum, Santana III, Grateful Dead (Skull and Roses), Surf’s Up, L.A. Woman. Hell, even the album that gives this book its name came after Every Picture Tells a Story, and as much as I love the album that was the sequel, cut-for-cut I think you’d have to go with the earlier one. And the Stones’ Sticky Fingers had superior Stones albums on either side of it: Let It Bleed and Exile on Main St. Are Randy Newman Live, Neil Young’s Harvest and the Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies really the albums you want to point to as emblematic of those artists’ indisputable brilliance? All the albums cited are perfectly ok, but with few exceptions (I get why someone might stand on a soapbox and testify on behalf of Blue, Who’s Next and Led Zep’s fourth, although I prefer other albums by all three), not many all-time best lists are going to feature these, not when there are Tumbleweed Connection, American Beauty, Saint Dominick’s Preview, Cosmo’s Factory and Abraxas in close chronological proximity. Is ‘71’s Hunky Dory really more significant than ‘72’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars?

The problem is that Hepworth didn’t just say that 1971 was a fun year to be twenty-one and into rock, and that a bunch of durable albums came out during those twelve months. Because if you strip the book of its thesis of ‘71’s superiority, it’s got a lot of cultural insight and scene-setting anecdotes: the chapters on T-Rex, Cat Stevens and Rod Stewart, the Concert for Bangla Desh, and Blue and Tapestry, are very nicely drawn. Unfortunately, the book is also filled with errors: Phil Spector didn’t produce the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine,” Paul McCartney didn’t write Badfinger’s “No Matter What.” Van Dyke Parks’s “lushly orchestrated song suite” wasn’t Discover America, it was Song Cycle (you’d think the title would be a tip-off). And Mitch Miller wasn’t the composer of “How Do You Do It.”

It’s as though Hepworth began with an idea, that this was the year rock “came of age,” and then worked backwards to try and back that up. Rock did “explode” in 1971, in the sense that it was fragmenting into pieces, genres becoming more separated from each other, the idea of an all-embracing audience being dismantled. It was a transitional year, the year Bill Graham closed his Fillmores on both coasts because even the dominant rock promoter was having doubts about the sustainability of the rock community. 1971 was stuck in the middle, between the kaleidoscopic adventure of the ‘60s and the emergence of punk in the second half of the ‘70s. To elevate it to the stature of rock’s best year is more than a stretch. It’s an act of contortion.

a tuxedo, a highball, a country tune

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Smack in the middle of the 1960s, an Italian-American crooner from Ohio and a team of crack session players in Los Angeles made a series of country-pop albums and not many people stopped to consider how extremely weird that was. I mean, listen to some of the tracks on Houston, the third Dean Martin album LP Reprise released that year; the title cut a relaxed, finger-snapping number by Lee Hazlewood, the barely-ambulatory vocal on the single “I Will,” the Tijuana Brass-like horns on “Detour,” the mod-country organ on “Hammer and Nails.” The whole thing takes the notion of cosmopolitan country music to a surreal level. Every few weeks, it seemed, Dean strolled into the studio with producer Jimmy Bowen and the Wrecking Crew and knocked off a dozen tracks that came from everywhere – (Remember Me) I’m The One Who Loves You is mostly country (“Born To Lose,””Take These Chains From My Heart,” “My Shoes Keep Walking Back To You”), but also makes room for the pop hit “The Birds and The Bees” and the antique “Red Roses For A Blue Lady”—and whipped into an easy-listening cocktail, with strings, backing vocals and Martin’s bourbon baritone.

It’s oxymoronic to say that Martin settled into a groove during that period, because settling into a groove was his jam, as the kids might or might not say. What he thought of these songs or this approach or anything else was irrelevant. Who would even ask him? He might not’ve liked rock all that much (he famously joshed about the Rolling Stones when introducing them on The Hollywood Palace) but that didn’t stop him from getting his kid’s group (Dino, Desi and Billy) a deal with his pally Sinatra’s label, or doing what he had to do to stay on the charts. And it turned out that what Bowen concocted for him was a pretty solid formula: From the summer of ’64 when, from out of nowhere. “Everybody Loves Somebody” became a number one hit, through late 1968, Martin and Bowen scored nine gold albums. In 1966 alone, they put out five albums, and were able to keep up this insane pace by recycling tracks from LP to LP (‘66’s Somewhere There’s A Someone pulled selections from a couple of country-centric 1963 albums, and who cared? Not Dean).

We can assume that those two ’63 efforts – Dean “Tex” Martin: Country Style and Dean “Tex” Martin Rides Again — were a response to Ray Charles’ ’62 Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music; Rides Again even uses one of Charles’ arrangers, Marty Paich, on a collection that draws on Hank Williams, Harlan Howard, Eddy Arnold. But those albums didn’t sell (that’s why Reprise was so quick to recycle the tracks), and it wasn’t until after “Everybody Loves Somebody” (and its hastily-patched-together namesake album – the Wiki discography considers it a “compilation” — featuring songs such as “Shutters and Boards” and a twangy “Corrine, Corrina”) that everyone decided to live at this intersection of MOR and country for a while. It was incongruous, watching Dean on his television show, tuxedoed and under-rehearsed, the epitome of L.A. languor, doing selections from the Music City Songbook, mixing them up with oldies like “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You,” breezing through them like he’s strolling off the 18th green and ready for a post-round drink. It was the country of cool.

It’s also a mess to sort out, this Martin in the mid-late ‘60s body of work, and no one has thought to do some type of chronological survey starting with those two ’63 “Tex” albums, and going through the rest of the decade, taking out The Silencers companion album to his first Matt Helm movie, and his Christmas and Dean Martin TV Show albums, avoiding the duplications from prior LPs, ending up at the end of the decade when Dean was doing Jimmy Webb, John Hartford, Tim Hardin (yes, really), Merle Haggard and Buck Owens (“I Take A Lot of Pride In What I Am,” “Crying Time”). You can even spill into the early ‘70s, and Kristofferson, Jerry Reed and Harlan Howard on For The Good Times. A lot of brush has to be cleared to get to Dean doing Hazlewood’s “Shades” (The Hit Sound of Dean Martin), and entering into the next decades uncovers things like his version of Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On,” and The Nashville Sessions, where he sings duets with Merle Haggard and Conway Twitty.

This was a trick not many of his peers could have pulled off. Tony Bennett may have helped kick off the whole country-to-pop strategy when Mitch Miller gave him Hank Williams songs to interpret, but you can’t picture him doing Cindy Walker, Marty Robbins and Bobby Bare songs. Jack Jones had a one-off novelty hit with George Jones’ “The Race Is On,” Bobby Darin tried to emulate Ray Charles throughout the You’re The Reason I’m Living album, and even Sammy Davis Jr and Buddy Greco tried to get into the swing of country, but none of them could loosen up enough; they all made the mistake of trying. So did Sinatra, when he approached “Little Green Apples” as though there were a tender torch song hiding inside the nonsense. For Dean, it was a break in his afternoon. Compare his “Gentle On My Mind” and “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” with Sinatra’s from exactly the same time (late ’68), the way Sinatra, bless him, struggles with lyrics that you know mean nothing at all to him, the way the Don Costa arrangements are sooo serious. Dean, he slouches into these songs. Does he, like Sinatra, play grammar cop and sneak a “gently on my mind” in there? Would that even cross his mind? He’d have been 99 years old today, and he’s justly celebrated for many things, but one of my favorite Dean Martins is when he sounds as though he’s a city slicker who’s stumbled into a saloon, found a jukebox with a bunch of country singles on it, orders a tall one and absent-mindedly sings along while eyeing a down-home Daisy Mae.

ready, set, go man go

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Because we live in a world that is often cruel and unjust, Pat Boone is walking around saying there should be laws against blasphemy (the Constitution not being so relevant in his cosmic worldview), since he was offended by a sketch on Saturday Night Live, while Little Richard is rumored to be gravely ill. That’s no small thing, the Little Richard situation. We are approaching, sadly, a point where very few of the originators of rock & roll are still with us. Of the first class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the ten artists who set the bar that has been so dramatically lowered in recent years, only Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and Don Everly survive, and only Chuck and Jerry Lee are still out there playing. The connective threads to rock’s early years are fraying badly, and the one bright spot in the attention paid to Little Richard’s health is that, if the Gods have a sense of what’s right, it will send people to their music collections and their computers to discover, or rediscover, what Little Richard was about.

I recently wrote a piece on the Ramones and talked about the dual responses of shock and laughter that some artists provoke, like, this is something so radical and absurd, but so conceptually perfect. Hendrix, who played guitar for Little Richard for a while, was like that, and Prince, and Elvis and The Beatles, of course: there were a couple of beats between the novelty of how they looked, how they sounded, what they projected, the audacity of it all, and the realization that this was something that couldn’t have been predicted but now was utterly essential.

I didn’t see Little Richard live until 1965 at the Paramount Theater in New York, a multi-artist (The Hollies, King Curtis, The Exciters…) bill hosted by Soupy Sales. By then, he’d stopped having hit records, but still he was in the air: The Beatles had cut “Long Tall Sally” (so did The Kinks) and “Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey Hey,” The Swinging Blue Jeans did “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” and “Lucille” was on The Hollies’ debut album. Later that year, Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels incorporated “Jenny Jenny” into the hit medley “Jenny Take A Ride”. The Everly Brothers revived “Slippin’ and Slidin’” on their Rock’n Soul LP, and followed that with a version of “The Girl Can’t Help It” on the next album, Beat & Soul (The Animals and Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders did that one also). Of course we knew who Little Richard was. He’d be one of the heads on any Mt. Rushmore of Rock & Roll that meant anything. And when he came out on stage he was, as anyone who’d ever seen him could tell you, explosive (The Explosive Little Richard would become, in ’67, the title of an Okeh LP). A lot of artists could play rock & roll. Little Richard was rock & roll.

Those early Specialty singles, the one he built his legacy on – although there were some fine records on VeeJay, Okeh, Reprise, Modern – came rushing at you. I mentioned the Ramones earlier, and Here’s Little Richard, his debut album, still sounds like it must have had the can’t-catch-your-breath impact of the Ramones’ first: bam! bam! bam! “Tutti Frutti,””Ready Teddy,” “Slippin’ and “Slidin’” (how did that even get on the radio??), “Long Tall Sally,””Miss Ann,””Rip It Up,” “Jenny Jenny,” “She’s Got It”…it’s completely crazed. A lot of those songs were hit singles way before the album came out, and a batch of them had shown up on the first two albums by Elvis (“Rip It Up” kicked off the Elvis LP, and “Ready Teddy” popped up on the B side). About Pat Boone, we will not speak, but it’s obvious why Presley and other ’50s rockers like Buddy Holly and the Everlys gravitated towards those songs: they were declarations of principles.

My heart says go go, have a time
‘Cause it’s Saturday night and I’m feelin’ fine
I’m gonna rock it up, I’m gonna rip it up
I’m gonna shake it up, gonna ball it up
I’m gonna rock it up, and ball tonight

What could kids in 1956 have made of that? The wildness, the abandon, the recklessness? Imagine buying the Specialty single of “Rip It Up,” flipping it over, and hearing this:

All the flat top cats and the dungaree dolls,
Are headed for the gym to the sock hop ball,
The joint is really jumpin’, the cats are going wild,
The music really sends me, I dig that crazy style.

He was ready ready Teddy, to rock and roll, and on those two sides of the same 45, he summed up the whole game, and naturally Elvis gripped on to both songs, because that was what he was selling: he was ready to rip it up. And Elvis got it: you see him singing “Ready Teddy” on TV in ’56 and it’s like he’s jumping out of his skin. But Little Richard was leaps beyond.We’re fortunate to have some astounding footage of him on film, in a couple of Alan Freed vehicles (Don’t Knock The Rock and Mister Rock and Roll), and especially in Frank Tashlin’s color and CinemaScope R&R extravaganza The Girl Can’t Help It, where his title song celebrates the figure made to squeeze of Jayne Mansfield, and he gets to pound out “She’s Got It” and “Ready Teddy.” Even though there’s an element of mockery in The Girl Can’t Help It, when the camera is pointed at Little Richard (even in the screen test below), it’s still a subversive jolt, nearly a half-century later. Nothing can contain him. He’s rock royalty.

steve miller??

There is so much wrong about what’s going on tonight in Brooklyn at the annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony. It feels like a sweep-up year, like the committee has more or less conceded that they’re done with artists from the ‘50s and ‘60s, that anyone worthy from those decades, if they haven’t made it in so far they’re shit out of luck, so if you have any favorite garage bands or R&B groups or soul singers or pop acts from that era that you feel have been neglected, get over it. Goodbye Paul Revere and The Raiders and The Marvelettes, tough luck Jerry Butler, and you might as well write off Love, The Zombies and Moby Grape. And Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels. But everyone I know who’s smart about popular music has a similar list (Brit Invasion fans lobbying for The Searchers as folk-rock pioneers, SF-scenesters wondering why Quicksilver Messenger Service have never been nominated, most people with good taste mentioning Doug Sahm and Gary U.S. Bonds), and the keepers of the Hall could not care less that every year their choices are met with a collective “huh?”. I stopped voting years ago, when it became obvious that any organization that enshrines Eagles (no “the,” I keep being reminded) and exiles Gram Parsons is not a place that welcomes my input.

So if Chicago, Deep Purple and Cheap Trick are your thing (named in ascending order of how much of my thing they are), have fun at Barclay, even though old wounds apparently have not healed enough for the individual members of Chicago and Deep Purple to share a stage. And N.W.A. have decided not to perform, so there goes a shot at a memorable moment. I suppose Deep Purple are being honored for the riff of “Smoke On The Water,” and I wouldn’t say they shouldn’t be, but no one who was involved in writing or playing “Louie Louie” is in the Hall, and which means more in the scheme of things? As for Chicago, defenders among my peers always point to that first double album on Columbia, when they were still Chicago Transit Authority, as enough of a reason to let them in, which puzzles the hell out of me, because that album is not nearly as good as Forever Changes, Odessey and Oracle or Moby Grape. And as a pop-singles machine, they’re way behind The Turtles, The Association and even Three Dog Night. Like, way behind. “Happy Together,” “Windy” or “Easy To Be Hard” vs “Colour My World,” “If You Leave Me Now” or “Hard To Say I’m Sorry”? This is madness.

I’m glad Bert Berns is getting one of the Hall’s nicely-done producer-writer prizes, because he earned it if he’d only done “Twist and Shout” and “Hang On Sloopy” and he did so much more. Steve Miller is kind of a mystery. I never thought he’d get in. He’s not even the most deserving Steve (Winwood is only in as a member of Traffic, which doesn’t seem fair because Stills is already in twice). The Steve Miller Band (the “Band,” you will note, is invisible to the HoF) made a few good albums (Sailor is more than good), and then from “Take The Money and Run” through the appalling “Abracadabra” the Band-less Mr. Miller churned out breezy pop-rock that was ok if you like that sort of thing, but if it’s Hall-worthy, what of The Doobie Brothers? What of America? Has Miller written a lyric as inspired as “Well I tried to make it Sunday, but I got so damn depressed/That I set my sights on Monday and I got myself undressed”? No, he has not. Steve Miller getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is like Clete Boyer getting into the one for baseball. I know that riffs like this are what the Rock Hall wants, that complaining about omissions in a weird way reinforces the joint’s legitimacy, and that all chatter is publicity. But ponder for a moment that Harry Nilsson and Warren Zevon are not getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The guy who wrote “Abra-abracadabra/I want to reach out and grab ya” is.

you make everything groovy

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The lunkhead inarticulateness and primitive musicality of “Wild Thing” as performed by The Troggs, that perfect distillation of rock & roll idiocy that has proven so central to the basic cultural vocabulary that few people who have lifted an electric guitar can resist bashing it out (from Hendrix and The Ventures, to Springsteen and Petty, to Jeff Beck and Cheap Trick, to Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde), is probably the reason Chip Taylor is being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame this year, and I can’t argue that “Wild Thing” alone wouldn’t be sufficient grounds for his recognition. The Troggs’ version was a cover (it was done first by a group called The Wild Ones, famed for being the house band at the ‘60s discotheque Arthur), but it’s definitive; it stomps and lurches around, and singer Reg Presley enters with a leering whine: “Wild Thing,” he addresses the girl in his field of vision, “you make my heart sing. You make everything groovy.” He could be on the street, or in a pub, possibly she’s a complete stranger, but no matter. He thinks he loves her, but his feelings need confirmation by proximity, by physical contact. How can he be certain, until his body is pressed against hers? He’s not that demanding. She embraces him, we assume, and presto: “I love you.” He is a man of not much complexity, or many demands. There are two things he requests: “Come on and hold me tight” and, later, “Shake it, shake it.” The sweet nothings of seduction.

Taylor’s “Wild Thing” is central to his legacy. Other worthy covers: X, Warren Zevon, Le Pecore Nere (in Spanish, as “Torna”), Senator Bobby. Jeff Buckley fooled around with it on his home demos, doing it as a Dylan impression, Liz Phair did a revamped version, and if you want a peek into the depths of hair-rock hell as foisted upon the world by MTV, there is “Wild Thing” bellowed by Sam Kinison, accompanied by rockers chanting the hook, and the writhing of Jessica Hahn. Future generations will look upon this stupefied, wondering why this seemingly homeless psychopath is screaming, why he’s being egged on by a chorus of dumb-looking pretty boys, and whether this poor inflated woman is a hostage. But this artifact aside, “Wild Thing” has had an impressive half-century, and if it’s responsible for getting Taylor into the Hall of Fame, that’s good news.

Because Taylor has a cluster of other memorable songs. When “Angel of the Morning” got on the radio in 1968 by Merrilee Rush & The Turnabouts – the original, better single was by Evie Sands – it was as startling in its much quieter way as “Wild Thing” was a couple of years earlier. It’s so matter-of-fact about sex without agenda, and to hear a woman plainly tell the guy he can just slip away after the night with only a touch on the cheek, that was new for pop. “There’ll be no strings to bind your hand,” are the first words of the song, written by Taylor with Al Gorgoni, and Merrilee, and Evie, and all the women who sang it after them (Skeeter Davis, P.P. Arnold, Billie Davis, Juice Newton, Olivia Newton-John, Bonnie Tyler, Mandy Barnett, Bettye Swann, Chrissie Hynde, even Nina Simone) always sound as though they’re still naked under the sheets. ”I see no need to take me home/I’m old enough to face the dawn,” they all say, and it’s not a walk of shame. Maybe there won’t be bright sunlight on her, maybe there will, either way, no worries. It was thrilling stuff for a Top 10 single, the idea that intimacy can be fleeting and guiltless.

Chip Taylor and Evie Sands, most often but not always with Gorgoni, also collaborated on the bold “Any Way That You Want Me” (where Evie offers up love if it’s on the table, but if it’s not, she’s still game, no explanation necessary), on “I Can’t Let Go” (a hit for The Hollies) and such neglected 45s as “Picture Me Gone,” “Run Home To Your Mama” and “You’ve Got Me Uptight.” There are also a few lost Taylor songs (“I’ll Never Be Alone Again,” “Close Your Eyes, Cross Your Fingers,” “Shadow of the Evening,” “I’ll Hold Out My Hand”) on the excellent album Taylor & Gorgoni produced for Evie on A&M, Any Way That You Want Me, an album that sits stylistically somewhere between Dusty In Memphis and Tapestry, but with a late-‘60s New York City-pop texture (a couple of tracks were done in L.A. with the Wrecking Crew). All of those songs, and others like “Try (A Little Bit Harder)” and “Don’t Say It Baby” make for a solid songwriting resume, but I think we can expect a couple of things at June’s Hall of Fame ceremony: a collective hormonal swoon when someone sings “Angel of the Morning,” and a wall-rattling sing along. “Come on and hold me tight. You move me.” That’s all it takes. “Shake it, shake it Wild Thing.”