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.

the last dance


“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


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


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


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


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.