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“the virtues of musical illiteracy”: seymour stein and the secrets of a&r

“I was standing there not sure whether to laugh,” Seymour Stein writes about his initial encounter with the Ramones, and that’s how it felt to a lot of people: they were absurd but also, one imagined, undeniable. But among record executives, as among rock critics, the verdict was by no means unanimous. Luckily for everyone, Stein stepped up and signed the band to his Sire label. He also signed Talking Heads, and Richard Hell & the Voidoids, and the Dead Boys. Also on his resume: Madonna, the Pretenders, Echo & the Bunnymen, Kid Creole & the Coconuts, the Smiths, the Replacements, “Ca Plane Pour Moi” by Plastic Bertrand, and a number of other artists and records enumerated in his autobiography Siren Song: My Life in Music, co-written with Gareth Murphy. It’s an impressive list, certainly, and you can almost forgive the publisher’s claim that Stein is “America’s greatest living record man,” who has “signed and nurtured more important artists than anyone alive.” I checked, and Berry Gordy, Jac Holzman, Clive Davis and Mo Ostin are still around, and I’m pretty sure they’d take issue with that pronouncement, but let’s accept it as St. Martin’s Press revving up the hype machine.

The book made me sad, because it’s as much of a swan song as a siren song; it’s not just about the powerful lure of music (and the “sire” pun within), but about a record industry that ran on instinct and chutzpah, sheer nerve, threats and double-crosses, and the tastes of executives who only trusted their gut. Stein is romantic, with good reason, about the music world he entered, the world of Syd Nathan at King Records, Morris Levy and George Goldner, Red Bird Records. Together with songwriter-producer Richard Gottehrer, he formed Sire (one of the label’s first 45s was by a local group I was friendly with in the Bronx, Barry Pohl and the Concessions, and that was my introduction to the company; later, I wrote a couple of quickie music bios on Carole King and Simon & Garfunkel for a short-lived book-publishing alliance between Sire and Chappell Music). It took a while for Sire to find its own voice, but once it did, it became one of the hippest outfits in the business.

Key to Stein’s signing sensibility was being hooked by vocal group R&B. “Boy, did I love doo wop, and still do,” he says (true to his word, he’s been passionate about getting some of those groups into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). Loving doo wop, it seems to me, means embracing inspired amateurism over slick professionalism, realizing that sincerity and stupidity can co-exist to make sublime noise, that competence – even “talent” – is a pretty routine commodity. Stein is the guy who heard potential in Madonna’s bright, silly demos, when a bunch of other labels had passed. He’s the guy who was knocked out by the Ramones and wrote the check for their debut album. In Siren Song he writes, “I’m no musician, so I never understood or even trusted technical virtuosity…Pop music is not just notes and beats; the really big vibration that rattles the city walls comes from a real-deal gang walking a tightrope together.” In another chapter, he talks about “the virtues of musical illiteracy.”

So of course Sire was an ideal home for the Replacements, for Lou Reed (another Jewish kid besotted with doo wop), for Madness’s “One Step Beyond” and Richard Hell’s “Blank Generation.” It always felt as though whatever was released on Sire — including k.d. lang, Brian Wilson’s solo album, the soundtrack from Shag, the heart-tugging vocalist Jimmy Scott, Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” – was the result of an impulse, beyond market calculation. Why be in charge of a record label if you can’t treat it like your own playground, give Jimmy Scott, or Charlie Rich, a third act, make records with the Flamin Groovies? Put out LPs by the Beckies and Duncan Browne? Flipping through Siren Song (which is not without some egregious errors, and some serious score-settling) is both exhilarating and depressing, because Stein’s generation of record men, the ones with “shellac in their veins,” is dwindling.

I used to cross paths with Seymour from time to time. At CBGB’s, checking out the same bands, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame dinners, at Mark Strausman’s restaurant Campagna on 21st Street in Manhattan, where he held court in a corner booth, leaving behind traces of white powder on the seats (his indulgences were no secret, and are detailed in Siren Song). Once, in a swanky clothing store in Paris. He never seemed to quite register who I was, despite the fact that we’d been introduced by friends we had in common, like A&R whirlwind Kate Hyman, and that he‘d had complimentary things to say about the books I did for Sire-Chappell. He was just on a different plane. But from my table at the Waldorf at those R&R HoF nights, I’d listen him rhapsodize about his formative years in the music business, the doo wop groups he championed. As the years went on, the bands he took a shot with, the Ramones, Talking Heads, the Pretenders, were inducted. Seymour Stein was one of the people who made A&R seem like a dream gig. You hear a demo, see a showcase, say yes. That’s how everything starts.

something shimmering and white

In April 1988 – three decades ago! – “Under the Milky Way” by the Church began to inch up the pop singles chart, after establishing itself as a rock, alternative and MTV hit. To commemorate its 30th anniversary, I thought I’d re-post a piece I wrote for the now-defunct MOG website in 2009 (a flashback within a flashback).
 A friend I worked at Arista with, a lifetime and a half ago, sent me an e-mail asking me if I’d heard that car commercial with some girl singing ‘Under The Milky Way.’ I had, from another room in my apartment, and I didn’t recognize the singer (Sia, it turned out), but it was one of those ‘what’s that?’ moments, when something you know so well, but haven’t heard it ages, comes back in an altered form, and you’re not quite sure what’s going on.
Another thing I didn’t know: ‘Under The Milky Way’ is all over the place. Just go to YouTube if you don’t believe me. There’s a clip of The Killers doing it with an assist from Chairlift, and an acoustic version by Nicole Atkins, and Matchbox 20 give it a shot… I mean, the thing is more than two decades old, and this is The Moment of Rediscovery. How randomly the wheel of pop spins.
‘Under The Milky Way’ played a pretty significant part in my own story, which I’ll tell you as succinctly as possible. I was knocking out advertising and marketing copy at Arista Records, and getting really restless. How many ways can you hype Air Supply? What more was there to say about Barry Manilow? You see my dilemma: on the one hand, I was employed at a record company, on the other hand, Air Supply and Barry Manilow. A couple of A&R people left the label, and I lobbied for a shot at the gig.
And got an unequivocal no. Which was understandable. It’s a desirable job, and I had no experience at it, and didn’t exactly know what it entailed (I knew that the A&R guys tended to show up for work later than the rest of us, and I liked that idea). But I kept being a noodge, and basically said, look, I have no idea if I can do this, and I’m not asking for a new title, or more money, or a bigger office. Just give me demo tapes, send me to showcases, have me call song publishers, and we’ll give it a trial, and meanwhile I’ll keep doing my real job even if it means more Manilow copy.
So I found a couple of songs for Arista artists to cut. And I got some artist demos, one of which was by The Church. They’d already been on Capitol and Warners, and hadn’t broken, but they had a little following, and college airplay, and Arista could use a band with that kind of cred. OK. On a cassette I got from the manager was a song called ‘Under The Milky Way,’ and I breathed a little sigh of relief, because it was simply perfect, in its way, It was moody, and hooky, pop enough but not too pop, slightly Pink Floydish, and yet modern and not prog-ish (and still, neo-prog band Coheed & Cambria have lately been known to play it at Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, so maybe it’s more proglike than I’d like to admit, given my progophobia).
It became the lead single and centerpiece of the band’s Arista debut ‘Starfish.’ And it crossed over from college radio to AOR to pop radio when it was difficult to make that transition, and the album went gold, and I was officially an A&R guy, because my first artist signing had worked.
What I think now (late 2009), is that ‘Under The Milky Way’ is mysterious, but childlike. It’s abstract, but has a melody that sticks with you. It’s certainly a Rock Song (which is why The Killers can do it), but it’s also, stripped down to its basics, folk-strummy (which is why Nicole Atkins can do it), and it’s Pop (which is why Rob Thomas can do it). As Sia’s Lincoln spot proves, it even works in a 30-second version. I have not heard the recordings by Rick Springfield and Echo & The Bunnymen, but the fact that it has been done by both Rick Springfield and Echo & The Bunnymen speaks much about its adaptability.
What I though then (1988) was that it was a hit, and I’m happy to see that it still is.

vo vo de oh deux

There’s a swell new record store in Winooski, Vermont, Autumn Records (not, I assume, named after the record label home of the Beau Brummels, but who knows?), and on a recent visit I was flipping through the racks and came across something so odd and so of-its-moment, so quintessential an example of the jumble-sale aesthetic of 1967 pop, that it should be on display somewhere, like on this blog. On Do the Love, the distinguished jazz producer and label executive Bob Thiele, whose name is in the credits of dozens of LPs that belong in any basic collection, is accompanied by – and I want to quote this exactly – “His New Happy Times Orchestra Featuring the Sunflower Singers and Steve Allen.” Thiele is dressed in Sgt. Pepperesque marching band costume. The cover typeface resembles west coast rock ballroom posters. Some of the song titles: “Jet Me to Frisco,” “The Sunshine of Love,” “Here Comes Sgt. Pepper.” There are also a few quite old tunes: “My Blue Heaven,” “Goodnight Sweetheart,” “When Day is Done,” done in period style. Because there was, in 1966 and through 1967, a convergence of trippy flower power and antique whimsy, a new age/jazz age fusion, a decision to skip backwards a few decades. Do the Love, a perfectly pleasant album (a YouTube clip identifies the title track as a “tittyshaker soul instro”), sits right in the neo-old-timey sweet spot, for which one can blame “Winchester Cathedral” and groups like the Beatles, the Youngbloods, the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, the Lovin’ Spoonful. Mostly “Winchester Cathedral,” by a British studio ensemble called the New Vaudeville Band.

“Winchester Cathedral,” written by Geoff Stephens (“The Crying Game,” “There’s a Kind of Hush”), with a lead vocal by the Ivy League’s John Carter, emulated the ‘20s dance-orchestra sound, sprightly and syrupy, and Carter’s voice was recorded in the style of Rudy Vallee’s wavery megaphoned tone. It’s a charming little novelty, and in late 1966, a period of crazy pop invention, it certainly stood out; it was a throwback not just to the pre-rock era, but to the pre-WWII era. It was pop archeology. Your grandparents would have recognized it. It was massive, #1 pop, #1 adult contemporary. But beyond its chart success, it was one of those records that, for a little while, alters the musical conversation, creates a mini-trend. One thing you should know about “Winchester Cathedral”: when the Grammy Awards were handed out for 1966, it won Best Contemporary (R&R) Recording, beating out (among others) “Good Vibrations,” “Monday, Monday” and “Eleanor Rigby.”

Strange things started happening; there had already been a nostalgic tint to some of the new pop music, touches of British music hall in the Beatles (especially McCartney’s songs), of vintage American pop in the Spoonful and the Mama’s and the Papa’s. But the success of “Winchester Cathedral” – was this an early clue to the new direction? — sent writers, arrangers, bands into the attic to crank up the gramophone and rummage through old sheet music for inspiration. “Hello Hello” by Sopwith Camel, “Grizzly Bear” by the Youngbloods (complete with “vo do dee oh”), “The Eggplant That Ate Chicago” by Dr. West’s Medicine Show and Junk Band.” The Monkees’ “Cuddly Toy,” written by Harry Nilsson, had an anachronistic shuffle to it. In San Francisco, the Charlatans were doing “Sweet Sue, Just You” and “Alabamy Bound,” while in England, the Bonzo Dog Band recorded “Button Up Your Overcoat” and “My Brother Makes the Noises for the Talkies.”

It wasn’t all due to the New Vaudeville Band; sometimes there’s just a collective impulse in the musical air. But it was all over the place, this very-retro tone, on the Stones’s “Something Happened to Me Yesterday” on Between the Buttons, on Peter & Gordon’s “Lady Godiva.” Ian Whitcomb, a true scholar of such things, recorded Ian Whitcomb’s Mod, Mod Music Hall (among the tracks: “Ida! Sweet As Apple Cider,” “That Ragtime Suffragette,” “The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi”). Producer Lee Hazlewood, arranger Billy Strange and the members of the Wrecking Crew dressed Nancy Sinatra in vintage clothes (not literally: on the cover she barely wears a pink bikini) for the album Sugar (“sweet, soulful serenades from the old timey years”), featuring tunes like “Hard Hearted Hannah,” “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Oh! You Beautiful Doll.”

Nancy’s daddy, meanwhile, took a swing at “Winchester Cathedral” itself, and he could not sound more miserable. He could not get a fix on it, and his interpolations (“You didn’t ding-dong,” he admonishes the edifice) are painful. He was not alone in stumbling through this uncomplicated ditty. “Ah hah!,” A&R people must have thought as the song climbed the charts: “Here’s something our long-in-the-tooth middle-of-the-road artists can do that the kids will dig.” So it was covered and covered, and parodied (by Homer & Jethro – “It set music back now at least fifty years” — and by Allan Sherman as “Westchester Hadassah”). A group called the New Happiness (not to be confused with Thiele’s New Happy Times Orchestra) released it as a single on Columbia Records, lead vocal by Bruce “Smooth” Lundvall (Mr. Lundvall became one of the most respected execs in the music industry).

Such was the power of “Winchester Cathedral” that Rudy Vallee re-emerged with an album (Hi Ho Everybody) to capitalize on his vocal mannerisms being back in vogue. Also re-emerging, on Warner Brothers, was Jimmy Durante, whose 1966 album was titled after the inescapable, undeniably peppy, past-evoking tune “One of Those Songs.” Tony Randall cut an LP called Vo, Vo, De, Oh, Doe. (The album, like Vallee’s, had the Geoff Stephens song, of course.) Another actor, George Segal, did an album of ragtime-jazz (“Yes Sir That’s My Baby,” “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “The Moving Picture Ball”) called The Yama Yama Man. With ’67 came the Innocence’s single of “Mairzy Doats,” Spanky & Our Gang doing “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” the stylistic influence of Bonnie and Clyde, the anything-goes spirit of Sgt. Pepper (“With a Little Help from My Friends” has a touch of vaudeville in there). Which brings us back to Do the Love. Are you not intrigued by the idea of Steve Allen singing, in New Vaudeville Band mode, “My Blue Heaven”? Or by the Sunflower Singers doing the Cashman-Pistilli song “Jet Me to Frisco” (“That’s where the flowers are growing,” the lyric tells us)? The liner notes insist “It is Mod and it is timely.” Yes, everything old was mod. After all, wasn’t one of the hippest clothing stores in London in 1966 called Granny Takes a Trip?

sounds & fury

As pre-teen moviegoers in the early 1960s, we were not at all discriminating. Whatever was playing within a walk or bus ride in the Bronx, at the Earl, the Kent, the Luxor, or up near Fordham Road, was perfectly ok with us. But anything that promised a a look at contemporary pop stars – since television was not very helpful in that particular area in that particular era – had high must-see priority. Anything with “rock” or “twist” in the title, anything with Elvis (even something as dashed-off as Kid Galahad). Movies as dreary as Teenage Millionaire with Jimmy Clanton: in order to see Jackie Wilson and Dion, we sat through hijinks with Rocky Graziano and ZaSu Pitts. It didn’t matter so much what the premise of the film was, or that the stars were singers who hadn’t gotten much exposure in the U.S.; we even went to the British movies that managed to make their way over here: Ring-a-Ding Rhythm (called It’s Trad Dad in the U.K., and directed by Richard Lester), Cliff Richard’s The Young Ones, and something called Play It Cool starring Billy Fury.

Play It Cool (directed by Michael Winner) is, no spoiler here, utterly forgettable, and it’s a bit of a mystery why it was released in the States at all. Neither of its stars, Fury or Helen Shapiro, made any transatlantic waves, and tossing Bobby Vee into the mix doesn’t up U.S. marquee value by much. And yet there it was at our local cinema in 1963, a year after it premiered in England. If the plan was to break Billy Fury in America, that didn’t pan out. Not much British pop made the crossing. A few instrumentals, “Stranger on the Shore,” “Midnight in Moscow,” “Telstar.” ABC-Paramount and Epic Records took some shots with Cliff Richard to middling response. The whole slew of teen idols over there, most of them managed and renamed by manager Larry Parnes (where would U.K. pop be without the insight and influence of gay Jewish men?) remained unknown in America: Tommy Steele, Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, none charted so much as a single (it took until ’65 for Adam Faith to crack through with “It’s Alright” and some riveting performances on Shindig).

So reading the new book Halfway to Paradise: The Life of Billy Fury by David & Caroline Stafford is like taking a tour through an alternate pop universe. It’s a detailed, enthusiastic and eye-opening look at pre-Beatles England. For most Americans, it might as well be historical fiction; Billy Fury could just as easily be “Billy Universe,” his character in Play It Cool; the titles of single after single zip by, chart positions noted, descriptive assessments offered, but we have no first-hand context. We have the Staffords’ word for how seismic Fury’s impact was, how compelling and scandalous he was as a live performer, what a landmark his self-written debut album The Sound of Fury (1960) was. It is a mysterious artifact to us, but luckily we can click over to Spotify and hear what the fuss was all about. What it is, is snappy, imitative rockabilly, a little bit early Elvis, some Buddy Holly and Charlie Gracie. The surprise is how confident it sounds; it’s enlivened quite a bit by Joe Brown’s guitar – he clearly did his homework listening to Scotty Moore, and maybe the James Burton solos on Ricky Nelson records – and it wins points for being slightly behind the curve, for evoking pre-Army Elvis, and the Crickets. It is, no joke, one of the purest rock’n’roll albums of 1960, and most of us never even heard it.

Halfway to Paradise, unfortunately, recycles the old tired clichés about 1960 pop music, Elvis in uniform, Chuck Berry in prison, Little Richard finding God, Jerry Lee in exile, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran dead. “Real rock’n’roll,” the Staffords tell us, “had all but vanished from Americas airwaves,” replaced by an army of Bobbys. All that doesn’t take into account the incredible amount of musical invention early in that decade, through the JFK years. But in Fury’s case, he rarely came close to the convincingly moody U.S.-rock’n’roll replication of The Sound of Fury. There was the string-laden tango of “Jealousy,” the Goffin & King song that gives the book its title, the eerie “Wondrous Place,” the cover versions of “A Thousand Stars” and “Letter Full of Tears,” the dismissible “My Christmas Prayer.” Is Fury’s life worth nearly 300 pages, dotted with stories of sexual exploits, chronic health issues, career slides, and quite a bit of minutia about his fascination with birds (of the ornithological sort)?

It is, because whatever Fury’s career might have meant outside of the U.K. – some Americans might only know him from his portrayal of the anachronistic pop (not porn) star Stormy Tempest in the movie That’ll Be the Day – he was a key figure in the evolution of British rock, when it was still hadn’t found its own voice. Together with Billy Bragg’s book Roots, Radicals and Rockers, subtitled How Skiffle Changed the World, it fills in a lot of blanks, gives a snapshot of English pop before most of us were paying close attention, or only hearing the occasional trad-jazz number, or the cheery novelty of Lonnie Donegan’s “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (On the Bedpost Over Night” (which clearly pointed the way to Herman’s Hermits). It was a different world over there in the early ‘60s, and no one had any idea how it all was about to change.

mood rock & pet rocks

“You are about to witness a new dimension in entertainment.” The voice is authoritative, and a bit ominous, like in the movie trailers that begin “In a world…” Out of the darkness, a man appears, his hair fluffed like Bobby Sherman’s, his collar spread wide like pointy white seagull wings. He sings, and it’s not clear what the announcer is talking about, what this new dimension might entail. Peter Lemongello is handsome enough; he seems like the kind of guy you’d see at the bar at Maxwell’s Plum, offering to buy a lady a Harvey Wallbanger, and because this is the mid-1970s, his clothes are ridiculous. There is a yellow get-up that reveals way too much man-cleavage. This two-minute introduction to Mr. Lemongello will run repeatedly on television: it’s a commercial for a record album called Love ’76, and before long that album will have sold well over a million copies (probably, but not officially: there are no R.I.A.A. statistics for it), just through mail order. There will be sold-out live appearances, write-ups in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Because, amazingly enough, no one thought to do this before, buy fame in 120-second installments, convince viewers to send $6.98 ($8.98 for 8-track tape) for an album by an artist they’d never even heard of. It was like a real-life version of the 1954 movie It Should Happen to You, where a struggling actress (played by Judy Holliday) rents out a billboard in mid-Manhattan for the purpose of getting attention (it’s a much better film than that Three Billboards… thing, by the way). It worked for her, and it worked for Lemongello.

Love ’76 is an album that’s not remembered for its music, but for its marketing, and in that sense, it’s sort of brilliant. It was all what we’d now call “branding,” selling Lemongello’s image, calling what he was doing “Mood Rock,” a term as evocative as it is meaningless, but what did that matter? A year before, an awful lot of people bought something called a Pet Rock, and there is not that much difference between a Pet Rock and Lemongello’s Mood Rock: once it came in the mail you thought, What do I do with this now? You played the double-LP once or twice, maybe, and then it became just an artifact that’s in your house, an impulsive purchase. Before you spent your money, you’d never heard a complete Peter Lemongello song on the radio in your life, and now you owned this.

What Lemongello figured out was, if a singer appears a couple of times on The Mike Douglas Show, he’s just one of a parade of musical guests that gets a few minutes of airtime. The next day and the day after that, new singers will take his place. But if you make a commercial and show it over and over again, flash your name on the screen in big letters, sing just enough of a song to indicate what you’re up to, a number of people–maybe more than a million!–will reach for their phones out of curiosity. He didn’t have to compete for airplay. He’d already done that, in the early ‘70s, and that didn’t work out so well. There were a couple of singles on the small Rare Bird Records (“Groovy Little Things” and an old Bacharach-David song, “Rain From the Skies”), another one on Mark V (“Contemplation”), and he was even briefly on a major, releasing “Mary Lee” on Epic. You most likely never heard any of those. So he had to take control of his own fate, raising money from private investors to finance an album and a campaign.

In an earlier era, he might have been positioned as a Bandstand teen idol, one of the lower-tier ones, like Johnny Restivo or Frank Gari (and someone would have shortened his name to Peter Lymon). Or he could have taken the nightclub route, singing Sentimental Songs for High Rollers, like Al Martino or Jimmy Roselli (whose biography is titled Making the Wise Guys Weep). But in the ’70s, the logical route was down the middle of the road, like what Neil Sedaka (“Laughter in the Rain”) and Frankie Valli (“My Eyes Adored You”) were doing. So he got Teddy Randazzo to co-produce, arrange, and cowrite most of the original material for Love ’76. Randazzo had written some major-league big ballads, “Goin’ Out of My Head,” “Hurt So Bad,” “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle,” and a few songs for Frank Sinatra, and for Lemongello, he and his collaborators took an approach that was part Barry Manilow, part Barry White-Lite, PG-13 seduction: “Come closer, baby,” the album starts off. “It’s the moment of truth.” Smooth talker.

One of the non-Randazzo songs is credited solely to Paul Anka on the LP credits, but that’s not accurate. “Do I Love You”–featured prominently in the ad: “Do I love you, don’t you KNOW by now?”–started off, like some other Anka compositions (“My Way,” “Let Me Try Again”) as a French song (“Plus rien qu’une address en commun”) that he loosely adapted into English. Anka had released it as a single on Buddah, and it had also been covered by Scott Walker (below). When Lemongello signed to a real record label, Private Stock, “Do I Love You” became the title track for his next album. But that LP never cracked the top 200. That’s the twist in the story: Lemongello orchestrated the launch of Love ’76 to separate him from every other struggling singer, to gain credibility through visibility, but once that happened, and he was on a regular label, he was on the same playing field as everyone else, another mainstream easy-listening singer angling for attention and airplay (even on Private Stock, his album came out in between albums by David Soul and Frankie Valli, competing in the same arena). What was special about that?

Lemongello became, then, the only artist to sell a million albums without once making Billboard’s LP or singles chart. “They’re calling me an innovator,” he told The New York Times, “because I went directly to the public. I wasn’t innovating anything. I was trying to be a star.” After him, artists such as Slim Whitman and Boxcar Willie hawked their music on TV. After him came Home Shopping Network and QVC. Today, all aspiring Lemongellos have so many avenues for exposure: Instagram, YouTube, Facebook. You can go on American Idol or The Voice. It’s easy to become famous for a while, if famous is all you want to be. Peter Lemongello figured that out more than four decades ago.

keely & vic & the grown-up saturday night

Once in a while, my parents’ life became glamorous. They would leave the Bronx and go into Manhattan for what people used to call a night on the town. The names of their destinations were exotic – the Blue Angel, Basin Street East, Upstairs at the Downstairs, the Copacabana – and they conjured up Kennedy-era elegance and cool, whisky sours and Marlboros, sharkskin and chiffon, men in sharp suits, women who spent the afternoon at the beauty parlor and could, for an evening, put on gloves with buttoned cuffs, spray some Arpege, and leave the kids with grandma and grandpa, venture into the heart of the city. Before they had me and my sister, in their dating days, mom and dad were, if their stories were to be believed, quite the nightclubbers, and when I became interested in the popular music of their era, I would ask them if they’d ever seen Nat “King” Cole, or Ella Fitzgerald, or Louis Prima and Keely Smith. A Prima and Smith show, it seemed to me from their albums, was the most fun you could conceivably have, a rowdy, unpredictable private party: let’s shut the doors, ignore last call, forget the baby sitter waiting back home: this is a night for the grown-ups. It was, as the covers of those LPs promised, the wildest.

Keely Smith, who was born the same year as both of my parents, 1928, died in mid-December of 2017. Less than two months later, Vic Damone, also born in ’28, passed away. This wasn’t shocking news; each was on the brink of turning 90. But with that generation slipping into history, we are getting increasingly far away from those small touches of sophistication that were in reach even to a working class married couple who lived on the Grand Concourse, and far away from the whole idea that the social life of young adults could be special and aspirational. When you went to the Copa or the Blue Angel, you made a little effort, shined your shoes and put on a tie, picked out a dress that maybe, in the mood lighting of the club, could pass for something Audrey Hepburn might have worn in Sabrina.

At least that’s how I picture it: Damone, in a tuxedo, gliding on to the stage of the Basin Street East (as on his 1963 LP The Liveliest) and opening with Dietz & Schwartz’s “You and the Night and the Music,” It sets the tone: here we all are. It’s date night, and Vic is there to provide the romantic scenery. It was ’63, rock and roll was approaching its second decade – and the Beatles were just around the corner – but Damone knows what his job is, to do the standards the way they were written. “At Long Last Love,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” He doesn’t transform them, the way Sinatra did, doesn’t make them crisp and vibrant the way Darin did, doesn’t swing them the way Greco did. The expression I always heard, when my mom was listening to WNEW (AM) on the kitchen radio, was that Damone had “the best pipes.” He never completely won me over, but he made a few fine albums at Capitol, and when he went to Reprise and the label set him up with producer Jimmy Bowen to try and replicate the countrypolitan formula that was working so well with Dean Martin, he didn’t embarrass himself terribly (it was, perhaps, inadvisable for him to do “It’s Not Unusual”).

Keely followed a parallel path as a solo artist, and her Capitol albums were even better, Swingin’ Pretty and I Wish You Love with Nelson Riddle, Politely! with Billy May (who also arranged a couple of snappy, slangy Frank Sinatra-Keely Smith duet sides penned by Cahn & Van Heusen). Later on, she joined the Reprise roster, where she recorded one of the first adult-pop albums devoted to the songs of Lennon & McCartney, and made the best albums of her career, The Intimate Keely Smith (produced by Bowen, whom she married in ’65) and Little Girl Blue/Little Girl New, which reunited her with Riddle. None of those LPs charted, and neither did her singles from ’63 through ’66 that cast her in a more contemporary light, tracks like “Going Through the Motions,” co-written by Al Kooper and arranged by Don Costa, “No One Ever Tells You,” a Spector-Goffin-King song arranged by Jack Nitzsche, and “Sunday Mornin’,” arranged by Neil Hefti. (She also had an early crack at Bacharach & David’s “One Less Bell to Answer” on Atlantic, but that song had to wait a few years for the Fifth Dimension version to hit the charts.)

A song that Vic and Keely had in common was “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” from Bye Bye Birdie. That was the first Broadway show I ever saw, when I was around 10 years old. The Adams & Strouse song was everywhere: what pop singer who needed an uptempo number for a nightclub act could resist it? Not many, apparently: Jack Jones, Nancy Wilson, Steve & Eydie, Sammy Davis Jr., Chris Connor, Shirley Bassey, Annie Ross all did it; so did teen idols James Darren and Bobby Rydell (it kicks off his live at the Copa album); so did jazz artists like Lee Morgan, Louis Armstrong (he even sang it on Shindig!), Bill Henderson (with Oscar Peterson) and Count Basie. It’s on Damone’s Basin Street East album, and on the buoyant Little Girl New side of the Keely-Riddle album. It’s a song with a feeling of anticipation and impatience, pent up energy: look out, world.

I picture my parents in some downtown (everything south of the Bronx was downtown) nightclub, having cocktails, free of us back home. Maybe Steve & Eydie sang “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” when my mom and dad saw them at the Copa: the timeline works, since it’s on S&E’s ’63 LP Two on the Aisle. I think about how I felt when I saw Bye Bye Birdie. “Life’s a ball, if only you know it, and it’s all just waiting for you.” Girls ripe for kissin’, steaks, wine and Cadillacs. I couldn’t wait. Around the same time, I was already immersed in teen pop, going to rock shows in Brooklyn, buying records. But there was, I knew, another world. “Music to play, places to go, people to see.” All a few years and a few subway stops away.

an apple and a starfish: living in bachelor nation

What would motivate an AARP member (male) with a graduate degree in Cinema Studies and an active cultural life to spend an inordinate amount of time in the world of The Bachelor? It wasn’t enough, apparently, to watch the recently-ended season where Arie, a dry slice of poundcake that took human form, chose the plucky gal from Minneapolis – Becca could be Mary Richards’ granddaughter – then reversed course, broke off that engagement and subsequently proposed to Lauren, the artificial dessert-topping of his dreams, all played out in excruciating detail during hours of ABC prime time. No: I also had to watch The Bachelor’s Winter Games spin-off, listen to the podcast Here to Make Friends, and read Amy Kaufman’s book Bachelor Nation. This is not what anyone would consider normal behavior, and yet it was all exceedingly entertaining, despite the fact that this season’s “lead,” the aforementioned Arie, offered up nothing in the way of personality, and promised what looked like an utterly stultifying life in Scottsdale, Arizona.

It was fascinating to watch how completely smitten – a word the competitors for Arie’s attention used quite a bit – these women became. What on earth did Becca (or Bekah, or Sienne, or Kendall) see in him? (As for Lauren, well, it seems they both like having coffee in the morning, then walking the dogs, going to work…the bar is pretty low.) Of course, the women are programmed for instant infatuation; they’re cooped up in the house most of the time, cut off from all communication with the outside world, including social media, and the only diversion they have to look forward to is being selected for a “romantic one-on-one” (or a “group” or a “two-on-one,” which is not as sexy as it sounds) date. If you hail from, as Tia did, a town called Weiner, Arkansas, and your mating prospects are limited to the fine gentlemen of Weiner, Arkansas, going to Paris or Tuscany with Arie might raise your pulse enough to consider a move to Scottsdale with an expressionless real estate salesman who was a so-so professional racecar driver as a “fairy tale.” That is one sad fairy tale ending, if you ask me.

It’s all very strange, because you find yourself rooting for the women who have some personality, who don’t seem bland and generic, because you think that’s who you’d be drawn to if you were in Arie’s shoes, but what you really want to do is yell at your television and tell Becca and Bekah and Sienne that they’re being idiots, that no matter where they’re from, they could throw a rock down any street and randomly hit some guy who would be more fun than Arie. How can you simultaneously want them to get the roses – you want to see more of them, so you don’t glaze over from the surfeit of Laurens – and also want to tell them they shouldn’t be so invested, that it’s all a trick? When Bekah – the one who was “too young” at 22, which is hilarious because none of the finalists was over 26 – and Sienne went home, it was like if David Miscavage had told Leah Remini, “You know what? This Scientology thing really isn’t working out. Pack your bags and go. By the way, you’re amazing.”

The Bachelor is called a dating show, but it’s more of a social experiment: what if you have a bunch of attractive women (or men, on The Bachelorette) and one guy who would be unimpressive in the real world – on almost every season of The Bachelor, the women are far more vivid and engaging than the lead – and convince them that at the end of this process (sorry: “journey”) they will be deliriously in love, and engaged. By now, since the show has been on since 2002, the women know just how ridiculously unlikely that scenario is. In the back of Kaufman’s book, there’s a list of all 21 pre-Arie Bachelors, and exactly one (someone named Sean, Season 17) is married to the woman he selected on the show (another married the runner-up, which must have been “the most dramatic” outcome ever until this season’s turnaround). That doesn’t seem to matter: they see themselves being proposed to on a windy cliff in an exotic locale. When you see them on The Women Tell All post-mortem, the women who were sent home along the way are clear-headed in a way they rarely were during the show: they’ve snapped out of a trance. “What was I THINKING?”

Another way this is not a dating show: the dates. The group dates are nonsensical competitions: bumper cars, bowling, dancing in skimpy outfits and “Can I steal you for a second?” Because that’s the way we all choose our partners. Can they climb rocks? Check. Will they throw a hissy fit because the losing bowling team ALSO gets to hang out at a crowded cocktail party (Krystal literally stormed off at the audacity)? Dealbreaker. What you never, ever see on any of the dates is any discussion of anything except the “relationship”: the conversations are about the conversations they have about the conversations they have, and whether one or the other is or isn’t “opening up.” Do they ever talk about movies they like, or music, or books that moved them, or an article they read in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates, or a Modern Love column? Does politics matter at all? Or religion? What if you move to Iowa to be with whoever had the farm (Chris?) and find out that his CD collection is all Kenny Loggins and Journey? NOW you’re stuck.

And yet, I’m glued to all of it, and I was somewhat comforted by the short fan-essays in Bachelor Nation by the likes of Joshua Malina, Nikki Glaser, Paul Scheer, Allison Williams and Amy Schumer. And even Arie’s clunker of a season was enlivened by the women, like when Becca was genuinely baffled by how he could be so torn between her and Lauren; they couldn’t be more different, she mused. They were like an apple and a starfish. Yes, they were, and now Becca is The Bachelorette. Aim high, you lovely starfish. I will be watching.

starfish on the beach

The death of Tom Rapp, the auteur behind the eccentric psych-folk group Pearls Before Swine, sent me back to his catalog, especially the albums he made for Warner Brothers Records when that label was taking a shot with any number of nutball musicians (that Rapp died the same day as Vic Damone, who also was a part of WB/Reprise’s roster, just highlighted how delightfully screwy their signing process was). In the middle of the 1971 album City of God was Rapp’s version of “Seasons in the Sun,” recorded years before Terry Jacks made it into a much-despised #1 single. Jacks’s hit has been roundly ridiculed for its cheesiness: he blandly skips through the first-person narrative where the singer, on the verge of death (by his own hand? by unnamed disease? Who knows?) bids adieu to significant figures in his life, old friend, father, wife. The record came out in that most depressing of pop years, 1974, twelve months that gave us “Billy Don’t Be a Hero,” “(You’re) Having My Baby,” “The Way We Were,” “The Streak,” “I Honestly Love You,” “Mandy.” In the midst of all that goo, “Seasons in the Sun” fit right in.

“Seasons in the Sun” started out as a French song, “Le Moribond” by Jacques Brel, and in its original French, it’s bitter and sarcastic. In the third verse, the dying man says goodbye to Antoine, whom he admits he didn’t much like (“It’s killing me to die today, knowing that you are still so alive, and yet still as solid as boredom,” one translation goes), but since Antoine was sleeping with the singer’s wife, the disdain is understandable. When Rod McKuen wrote English lyrics for “Le Moribond,” he kept the infidelity intact, and the first batch of covers, in the ‘60s, of what was now “Seasons in the Sun” (McKuen, the Kingston Trio, the Fortunes), were pointed in calling out the wife’s indiscretions. “You cheated lots of times but then I forgave you in the end, though your lover was my friend.” I was surprised when the Pearls Before Swine version zapped the faithless wife even more curtly:

Adieu Francoise my trusted wife
When I close my eyes this time I close my life
I’ve closed them before for you without a sound
And I know your lovers all around
Will be in my bed before I’m in the ground

The chorus of “Le Moribond” has been translated as “I want them to laugh, I want them to dance/To amuse themselves like crazy when they put me in the hole,” but McKuen decided to go with “The hills that we climbed were just seasons out of time,” which means absolutely nothing (“Seasons out of time”?), and stuff about wine and song. It is a tough call whether this or Paul Anka’s transforming Claude Francois’ “Comme d’Habitude” into “My Way” is the most egregious French-to-doggerel handiwork.

Before Terry Jacks, formerly of the Canadian pop group the Poppy Family (“Which Way You Goin’ Billy?”), cut “Seasons in the Sun,” he produced a version of it by the Beach Boys, and when that hit the discard pile, Jacks decided to have a go with it himself, stripped of all its fatalistic dark humor. In his final verse, he even makes Michelle (the wife, renamed from Francoise, so as not to taint her with the reputation of Brel’s promiscuous heroine?) a devoted companion: “You gave me love and helped me find the sun.” How very McKuenesque of her, helping him tilt his head upward towards the sky.

You can imagine a scenario where this all went differently for “Le Moribond,” if Scott Walker, a frequent Brel interpreter, had done a version with English lyrics by Mort Shuman, who translated “My Death,” “Mathilde,” “Amsterdam,” “Jackie,” “Next,” and it was a track on an album like Scott 2. But it fell into the hands of Rod McKuen, and then was watered down even more in the version known by most of the world outside of the U.K. (in England, it was a big 1999 hit for the group Westlife), and found its way onto many lists of the Worst Songs Ever.

Despite that ignominious reputation, and its easy-to-mockness, I don’t think Nirvana were kidding when they started to play around with it; it doesn’t sound like hipster irony. It sounds like they, and Cobain in particular, could hear past whatever versions they’d ever encountered, even through McKuen’s sentimentality, and back to what Brel had in mind. A contributor on the Genius website translates the end of the first verse like this: “We have sung of the same women, we have sung about the same miseries.”

the jackpot question in advance

Note: this post was originally written a few years ago, and has been revised to include a mention of the lovely new version of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” by Kacey Musgraves, which everyone should listen to immediately, and which is part of her completely charming A Very Kacey Christmas live show that came to New York City last night.

Few topics infuriate me more than the annual discussion about whether Frank Loesser’s “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is an ode to date rape, a position that’s taken hold in recent years and is seasonally perpetuated despite the evidence on nearly every version of the song that the woman is having a perfectly swell time smoking and drinking and flirting and that she really must go not because the evening is taking a sinister turn, but because she’s concerned about how her lateness in getting home will cause chatter and suspicion among her family and neighbors. So enough of that nonsense, and enough with calling it a “Christmas song.” It’s just cold outside. It could be Valentine’s Day, or Halloween. Sometimes it’s cold on non-holidays. Loesser doesn’t mention presents under a tree, or insinuate that the woman is afraid if she misbehaves Santa will withhold gifts this year. I’m annoyed that the song has become such a Christmas Album cliche, and that some morons think “What’s in this drink?” means anything except that the guy has been a little liberal with the alcohol in the refill.

Loesser wrote an actual holiday standard that’s wistful and hopeful, “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?,” a song I first heard on an album of duets by Bobby Rydell and Chubby Checker, which sounds very strange, I realize, but it wasn’t like Bobby and Chubby were asking each other out on a December 31 date. As I recall (I might have the LP somewhere, but it’s dreadful, and I have no urge to revisit it), the two singers are complaining that while other people are out celebrating, they have New Year’s Eve gigs. Whatever…I wasn’t impressed as a kid by the tune or its interpretation, but I soon found other versions that brought out all the tentative romanticism in this ballad: the best take on the song is by the great doo-wop group The Orioles, Sonny Til on lead vocals, that starts with a touch of “Auld Lang Syne” to set the mood.

There’s another nice one from a bit later on by Dante & The Evergreens, and although Dick Haymes’ singing is a little too impersonally creamy for my taste, on his “NYE” he’s backed by Les Paul on guitar, and the recording has a sweet post-WWII sentimentality. From the female side, go to Nancy Wilson or Lee Ann Womack. Or Ella, or Karen Carpenter. Considering that the song was written in the 1940s, when girls didn’t invite guys on dates, it’s cool how many women singers have put themselves out there. With Karen, there’s the suggestion that she’s just singing this to herself, wondering about the boy she likes, imagining asking him out.

The song starts, “Maybe it’s much too early in the game,” so it’s possible we’re around Thanksgiving, and the guy (or girl) is making what he hopes is a pre-emptive move, but it’s so doubt-ridden: he wants to be the one to be holding her tight when the clock strikes twelve, getting that first kiss of the New Year, but he knows he has competition, and he wonders what his chances are. He assumes she’s already been wooed with invitations, and in the bridge, he confesses that he might be crazy to suppose he’ll be that lucky. It’s all so aw-shucks (if you want to get all “Baby It’s Cold Outside”ish about it, let’s call him desperate and stalkery. Why not? It seems like any interpretation of anything can get an airing these days), and you’re rooting for him because he’s fumfering with all these equivocations like Hugh Grant in a rom-com gearing up to ask the “jackpot question in advance” (aren’t all dates made in advance? what is this, the end of summer or something?). What if he’s rejected? That would make it the Saddest New Year’s Eve Song Ever. But he doesn’t get the answer in the song; it’s left hanging. We don’t know if she’s flattered, thrilled or disinterested. What is she doing New Year’s Eve?

There are a couple of wonderful modern versions. Zooey Deschanel (she who has been such a part of the 21st Century “Baby It’s Cold Outside” resurgence with her Elfish turn) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt have had a legitimate YouTube hit (over 10 million plays) with their acoustic duet.

In 2005, Rufus Wainwright sang it with its rarely-heard verse, and so has Kacey Musgraves on her 2016 holiday set:

“When the bells all ring and the horns all blow
And the couples we know are fondly kissing
Will I be with you, or will I be among the missing?”

It’s not only about that night, about whom — if anyone — we’ll be with when the calendar changes. It’s about the future uncertain, whether we stand a little chance if we step up, muster up the courage, and ask.

sorrows and promises and songs of farewell


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.