not the only starfish in the sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.”