the sunny side


The song is 85 years old, written in the the early days of the depression, and still, when it’s the audience’s turn to sing the chorus during a performance by Jon Batiste and Stay Human at a taping of Stephen Colbert’s show, almost everyone knows the words. “Just direct your feet to the sunny side of the street.” The song is a beam of light, pure American optimism: all you have to do is cross over from the dark side into the light, and your outlook will change. “I used to walk in the shade,” the Dorothy Fields lyric goes (to the jaunty melody of Jimmy McHugh), “with my blues on parade,” but nothing is as bleak as it might seem. Look, it’s the sun! Let’s walk over there! There is something so corny about that, so simple, that it’s like a reflection of the Norman Rockwell side of our collective character. Batiste and his group take it as a confident, playful strut, handed down from generations of jazz musician like Louis Armstrong. So many of the New Orleans-tinged versions take their cue from Armstrong’s many performances of it, and even though the song began in a Broadway musical, it feels like it’s part of the New Orleans tradition, like an upbeat Crescent City anthem: Sidney Bechet, James Booker, Louis Prima, Harry Connick Jr., Terence Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis, Trombone Shorty. New Orleaneans all, adopted it, and one of the pioneers of NO R&B, Dave Bartholomew, cut a swinging local Doo Wop version with The Bees.

But it belongs to everyone, to Big Bands (Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Basie and Ellington), to Willie Nelson and Stevie Wonder, to Django and Tatum. How many songs have been recorded by so many A-list vocalists? How many songs have been interpreted by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra (“grab your coat and snatch your hat,” he advises), Armstrong, Nat “King” Cole, Tony Bennett, Dinah Washington, Peggy Lee? Then throw in Dean Martin, Brenda Lee, Johnny Mathis, Doris Day, Joe Williams. That’s an incredible line-up right there, and it’s very very far from complete (apparently there is a Zooey Deschanel version that I need to find). You can see why it struck a resonant note during the 1930s, with its “if I never had a cent I’d be rich as Rockefeller” breeziness in the face of economic setback, and why it circled around again during the dark-cloud period around WWII when it was done by Dorsey and The Sentimentalists, Billie Holiday at Commodore, Goodman with Peggy Lee on vocals, Jo Stafford with the Pied Pipers. This was a song that suggested that worries can be left behind on the doorstep, that happiness was a few steps away.

The verse to the song got lost fairly rapidly. Hardly anyone sings it: the common approach is to leap into the coat-and-hat instructions without any set-up, but the verse paints a deeper picture. “Walked with no one and talked with no one/And I had nothing but shadows,” it goes, and I would have loved to have heard Billie or Dinah start off like that, a prelude to a bluesy lament that gets turned around like this: “Then one morning you passed and I brightened at last.” Someone (maybe in the original musical) has come along to reverse the emotional fortunes of our singer by pointing, metaphorically at least, towards the sunshine. That’s all it takes, but naturally there’s the implication that the reason the singer can “greet the day and complete the day” with a more positive attitude is that love has entered the picture.

Without the verse, “On The Sunny Side Of The Street” is nothing like a love song; it’s like “Swinging On A Star” or “Happy Days Are Here Again,” a mood elevator. Things will be better, it assures us. But what about “walked with no one and talked with no one” and those persistent shadows? In the midtown theater where Batiste and his band turned it into a sing-along, there were so many ominous portents outside, the shadows of uncertainty and fear. All around us, we’re being shouted at to be afraid, and no one can honestly say that these aren’t dark times. But Batiste gave the crowd its cue, and we sang words our grandparents knew. “Just direct your feet to the sunny side of the street.”

paris au go go


“This wasn’t the film we had imagined, the perfect film each of us carried within, the film we would have liked to have made or perhaps even to have lived” – Masculin Feminin, Jean-Luc Godard

The idea we had of Paris was in the images in the films of Godard and Truffaut, the photos of Francoise Hardy by Jean-Marie Perier. For another generation, Paris was A Movable Feast, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the parties and cafes Woody Allen recreated in Midnight In Paris, but in the ‘60s and into the ‘70s we went to see every movie, and I think we would have watched them even without subtitles, looked at the clothes, listened to the soundtracks, gazed at the young women, Anna Karina dancing in Bande a Part, Chantal Gota cutting a ye-ye song in Masculin Feminin, Francoise Dorleac in La Peau Douce, Jean Seberg selling the Herald-Tribune in the Paris streets. The pop music made in Paris didn’t travel then, so we didn’t hear the ye-ye girls on the radio or see the Vogue Records EPs in record stores, or else we’d have been seduced by them the way we were by Bardot, Deneuve, Karina and Dorleac. Years later, we found those records — France Gall, Sylvie Vartan, Liz Brady — and records recorded in French by Sandie Shaw, Dusty Springfield and Marianne Faithfull, and although you might not think it possible, they made those English girls, to ears not attuned to the nuances of language, even more seductive. France was not good at rock and roll, let’s be honest, but at this branch of pop they excelled, music that felt free and frivolous; in Masculin Feminin, Goya sings something called “Si Tu Gagnes Au Flipper,” which translates to “If You Win At Pinball,” and it’s adorable nonsense: “Au stock américain, tu vas pour t’habiller/Tu viens faire le malin, en blouson chemise rayée” (“At the American store, you go to buy yourself clothes/You just try to show off in your striped shirt and jacket.” That is, in its way, perfection.

The Paris in our minds was liberated and indulgent, afternoons frittered away over black coffee, long-haired girls in mini-skirts dancing to a kind of jazzy French approximation of actual jazz, intellectual flirtation. London swung, and the U.K. was where all the cool groups came from, but even The Beatles and The Stones would have told you that they modeled so much of their attitude on the nouvelle vague, that A Hard Day’s Night was pop Godard, that Marianne Faithfull was a British version of Francoise Hardy. Paris was where “Au Go Go” came from, the term that encapsulates the mid-’60s in six letters. Au Go Go meant lively, excessive, spirited, upbeat, and it was applied to everything. Au Go Go was the ‘60s before the Summer of Love, and it was a multicultural invention: watch any party or nightclub scene from a movie from 1964 through 1966, any scene where guys in turtlenecks and girls in high boots are doing some version of The Frug or The Shing-a-Ling while a song by a beat group plays on the hi-fi: Sixties Au Go Go.

A week before the attacks on Paris, I sat in a packed cinema in Brooklyn and watched two parts of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1: Noli Me Tangere, a 1971 film that runs over 13 hours and features Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto. I only made it through the first 3 1/2 hours, but it reminded me that that was how I used to spend so much of my time, in dark rooms watching French films, including ones by Rivette like Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs To Us) and Celine et Julie vont en bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating), Eric Rohmer, and Jean Eustache (La Maman et la Putain). Celine et Julie and the Eustache were long (over three hours) and demanding, but I was gripped by cinema, and especially by the French directors who started out as critics at Cahiers du Cinema. The other night, 24 hours after Paris was wracked by inexplicable chaos, I went to see Kent Jones’s new documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut about the 1967 book of their conversations. I’d never read anything like that: one filmmaker interrogating another about every detail, every creative decision. Within the doc are clips from Truffaut’s own films, and I was reminded how much the Paris of my imagination was drawn from those movies. Godard and Truffaut and their contemporaries liberated movie-making from the studio and took their actors and cameras into the Paris streets, and although it was a different form of film fantasy — in reality, no one is as effortlessly glamorous and charismatic as Belmondo and Seberg in A Bout De Souffle — it felt more immediate, more like life.

Although I love so much French music, Serge Gainsbourg and his women, Aznavour and Becaud, all those ye-ye girls, those are things I had to circle back to and retroactively discover. The movies, though, I caught as ‘60s and ‘70s imports and revivals, and I keep revisiting them. I became unreasonably delighted when I saw that Hulu has the whole Criterion Collection, and the first thing I watched when I subscribed was Masculin Feminin. I remembered seeing it for the first time, and then again when the old Carnegie Hall Cinema screened every Godard film over the course of a ‘70s summer. Everyone knows now the cafe scene in Bande a Part, but then, it wasn’t so familiar; it felt spontaneous and alive. If I were visiting Paris, like Owen Wilson in Woody’s love letter, I’d want to sit on a corner at midnight and have a mysterious car take me to that cafe in 1964.

beach boys r.s.v.p.


Capitol Records wanted a new Beach Boys album in the stores in time for Christmas 1965, but Brian Wilson was still immersed in the music that would become Pet Sounds, and the group had already released holiday and live albums the year before. That might’ve been an opportune time for a Greatest Hits LP (they’d scored around a dozen Top 20 singles by then), but instead everyone decided to book a few sessions at United Western in September to create a faux-Beach Boys Party: the guys brought acoustic guitars, harmonica and some rudimentary percussion (Hal Blaine played ashtrays), and ran through a collection of mostly cover tunes. Then they added ambient house-party chatter and Beach Boys Party! was in the stores, fifty years ago this week.

The sessions involved a lot of goofing around: they did some Lennon & McCartney and Dylan songs, a few novelties (“Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow,” “Alley Oop”), some Leiber & Stoller (none of those attempts — “Riot In Cell Block #9,” “Ruby Baby,” “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” “One Kiss Led To Another” — made the original album), they harmonized beautifully on The Everly Brothers’ “Devoted To You” and The Crystals’ “There’s No Other (Like My Baby),” mocked Sonny Bono. Dean Torrence from Jan & Dean dropped by to sing on “Barbara Ann.” They took a couple of messy stabs at “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Bootlegs of these recordings have been bouncing around for years, but now selections from the sessions are being officially released on Capitol’s Beach Boys Party! Uncovered and Unplugged, for fans of studio chatter and multiple discarded takes. Listeners will get five shots at “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away.” The track listing identifies many selections as “Dialog” and “Fooling Around,” and the whole thing has been stripped of the overdubbed “party” elements, so this is bare-bones (I haven’t heard the Capitol assemblage yet, but have spent far too much time with these sessions: there are only a couple of “Mountain of Love”s on U&U, but trust me, they did it over and over).

Some folks call this the first “Unplugged” album, but what it most reminds me of is the period when The Beatles were mucking about in the studio trying to make the album that was nearly Get Back and became Let It Be: a lot of strumming on half-remembered oldies, jockeying for band dominance, creative tension. You — or at least I — can hear things pulling apart. Brian is there, but he doesn’t do very much, and why should he? He has much bigger things on his mind than wasting precious studio time doing other people’s material; he adds his harmonies to “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” as he always did live (the song had already been preserved on Beach Boys Concert in ’64), and sweetly blends with Mike on “Devoted To You,” but otherwise he’s not really playing this party game. The “Produced by Brian Wilson” credit seems almost insulting, because for the most part it’s Mike’s show, even more so on the naked sessions: Mike takes lead most of the Leiber and Stoller tunes that hit the cutting room floor (is that Carl or Brian on “Ruby Baby”?), does his shticky thing on “Alley Oop” and “Hully Gully,” and can be heard doing a nasal Sonny Bono/Bob Dylan whine on a creakingly unfunny “protest” parody of Bono’s “Laugh At Me.” Al Jardine takes the sincere lead on Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and the “Blowin’ In The Wind” outtake, but he was the group’s token folkie, and you can almost hear Mike in the background sneering and throwing potato chips at him.

Beach Boys Party! hit the stores in November, and a few weeks later, The Beatles released Rubber Soul, and that must have made Brian nuts: his group was forced to go in and cut this throwaway album — with three Beatles songs on side one, and “Ticket To Ride” tried to boot — and then, when The Beach Boys’ “real” new single “The Little Girl I Once Knew” barely squeaked into the top 20, Capitol pulled “Barbara Ann” from Party! as an emergency 45 and Brian had to watch that go to #2 in early 1966 while he was crafting an album worthy to stand along The Beatles’ latest. I can imagine (well, not imagine completely, because history has been pretty clear on this) Mike hearing Pet Sounds and saying, look, Brian, we just had a smash hit single with “Barbara Ann,” why don’t you write us a follow-up that sounds like that? This had to have been torture: a song by The Regents, with Dean Torrence on vocals, from an album made solely to sit under Christmas trees (gatefold cover! photo insert!), and this is what the public wants? Beach Boys Party! sounds to me like an attempt to take some of the power away from Brian. Or maybe I’m being too harsh; maybe it was to take some of the burden off him, give him more time. But Beach Boys Party! went to #6 and Pet Sounds stalled at #10, and therein lies madness.

Everyone was moving forward as 1965 was ending. Compare U&U to what Dylan was up to (as exhaustively documented on the essential The Cutting Edge box). The Stones started Aftermath that December, and The Beatles were finishing and releasing Rubber Soul. The Beach Boys put out an album that pretended to be something it wasn’t, that made fun of their own hits. Listen to them messing around with “Satisfaction,” like they can’t quite figure out what it is; they try to do Dylan’s “She Belongs To Me” and it falls apart in non-comprehending chaos. Mike is much more comfortable digging into his crate of oldies, Carl and Dennis grab on to The Beatles tunes like a life raft, and Brian is in the corner. This isn’t his party, but he’ll have to clean up when it’s over.

uptown girl


Last night Kacey Musgraves became the first country artist to headline the Apollo, and so the first to say “fuck” on the stage and celebrate marriage equality, and if you have any doubt that the Republican nominee, whomever he might be (it won’t be Carly), is doomed, you might point to Musgraves as symptomatic of the GOP’s utter futility: like another woman who recently sold out the venue, Amy Schumer, Musgraves represents an unstoppable libertarian force. Young women cheering Schumer’s freewheeling sexuality and Musgraves’ live-and-let-live philosophy are not going to vote for one of the rigid old dudes who strike a moral pose, stand by Kim Davis, badger Hillary by proxy in the House of Representatives. Hillary can make you cringe when she’s trying to be likable and relatable. That’s not her schtick, and she needs to cut that out. Where she excels is in shutting down the toxic bullshit of the Republicans who can only sputter impotently. She can marshall an army of women in their 20s and 30s (Musgraves is 27, Schumer is 34) if she just says, look, I can keep the jackals at bay. I’ll have a veto pen. That’s the only requirement, really. She’ll never be able to land a joke; she sucks at that. But she’s not going to do any damage to the republic.

If there is hope for American Values, it’s Musgraves and Schumer and the women of Broad City (Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson), Lena Dunham and Mindy Kaling, pop feminists Katy Perry (who’s already working for the Hillary cause), Beyoncé and Taylor Swift. I can’t speak to whether these women are “liberal” or “conservative,” but I can tell for sure that they won’t have their behavior or their bodies monitored by meddling dudes. And if Musgraves’ show Means Anything, it means don’t let anyone tell you how to live: sleep with an ex, smoke some weed, kiss anyone you fancy, keep your nose on your side of the fence. Be a dime store cowgirl, don’t worry about not being pageant material, and it’ll all work out, or not. In any case, it’s no one else’s biscuits. Kacey isn’t as brazen a hussy as Miranda Lambert (although she did co-write one of Lambert’s anthems, “Mama’s Broken Heart,” and sang it at the Apollo); she’s more a “bless your heart” girl who just does her own thing. She’s a charmer with bite, and she seems as though she’d be a blast to hang with. Her tour is called the Country & Western Rhinestone Revue, and it’s filled with sparkly things, corny banter with the band, costume changes, but underneath the shiny surface is a will of steel.

Kacey Musgraves is a small town girl from Texas, and she makes what I suppose you have to call country music, and there are certain expectations that come with that gig. Not fulfilling those expectations means that country radio doesn’t have much use for her, but not only doesn’t that matter, it’s like a badge. What do the people who packed the Apollo — women, mostly, who have committed all the lyrics, not only the singles’, to memory — care about airplay? Musgraves speaks to her fans plainly and directly, and her songs are as American as you can get; conservatives like to whine about the erosion of Freedom, which strikes me as mainly paranoia about guns, the right to discriminate, and the obsession with controlling women. In Kacey’s world, freedom is something more accepting and messy. We’re all conflicted fuck-ups, she says, so why point fingers and judge? Musgraves writes sing-along tunes about autonomy and acceptance, and when she picks songs to cover, they’re songs about assertiveness: TLC’s “No Scrubs” and Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking.” She’s representative of a sizable 2016 voting bloc, I think, and if that’s the case, I’m not that concerned.

the art of the sequence


Stevie Wonder and his stage-bursting ensemble of musicians and singers finish a rousing, audience-pleasing version of “Sir Duke,” and with barely a pause, they snap into “I Wish” and mentally, in that barely-a-pause, you lift the vinyl off the turntable, do the classic side-flip, place it back and wait for the first notes. The Zombies, all surviving members accounted for, start playing “Care of Cell 44,” and for the next 35 minutes, Odessey and Oracle flows exactly the way it has every single time you’ve played it since 1968. Albums have their own internal logic. Sometimes, when I download a classic album into my computer, I join all the tracks together into one continuous file, the 39 minutes of The Who Sell Out, the 36 minutes of Pet Sounds. When you know an album intimately, even the spaces between the songs make sense in only one way, the specific beats. When a song ends, in isolation, your brain inadvertently goes to the one that follows it on the LP, and some other song coming on is, for an instant, disorienting. Not every album comes within miles of Songs In The Key Of Life or Odessey and Oracle (“not every”? who am I kidding? albums of that stature are in some extra-rarified atmosphere), but as an A&R guy, I always fussed over the sequencing of albums I worked on. I once sent an album back to be remastered to change not the music, but the silence between the songs, which seemed to me to be about a second too long.

We keep hearing that the album as an art form is virtually obsolete, that we live in a track-based universe, and that’s mostly true. But to the extent that there is a renewed interest in vinyl (that seems way exaggerated to me, and I spend far too much time in stores that sell used LP’s, and at record fairs), it doesn’t feel like that’s about the sonic “feel” as much as it’s about object-nostalgia, owning something tactile in an age when most music isn’t even rented; it’s more subletted, like we’re staying in Spotify’s apartment and browsing through its collection. The idea of the physical album is that it has weight, actually and symbolically. And the idea of going to see full-album recreations live is an acknowledgement that there was a time when you’d place the stylus on the album — or pop a cassette into a boom box or Walkman — and let the whole damned thing roll: the album as a fully-realized experience. It’s an expression of respect and fidelity.

There’s been a lot of that going on in the New York area recently. At Carnegie Hall, a distinguished array of performers from Dr. John to Branford Marsalis to Ed Sheeran to the insanely impressive Aloe Blacc, did — start to finish — Bill Withers At Carnegie Hall, a live album recorded in 1972. Stevie Wonder brought his Songs In The Key Of Life show to Newark (Sheeran showed up for that one as well, duetting on “Pastime Paradise”). The Zombies did Odessey and Oracle in Manhattan last weekend, and Steely Dan came to town for nights devoted to Aja, Gaucho and The Royal Scam at the Beacon Theater. I skipped the Dan show, but was at the other three, and what the full-album show sacrifices in the way of suspense, it delivers, at its best, the excitement of execution: you know where this ride is going, but not which stops are going to deliver unexpected thrills, what individual songs will surpass the record or capture what you love about the song so flawlessly, how the whole experience will come together. Some of my favorite concerts have had full-album components: Brian Wilson doing Smile at Carnegie, Springsteen doing The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle and The River in back-to-back shows at the Garden, Patti Smith doing Horses at BAM, and the shows over the past couple of weeks felt, in different ways, equally epic.

Odessey and Oracle is from ’68, and the Withers and Wonder albums from ’73 and ’76 respectively. The albums Steely Dan chose for their run are from ’76 through ’80. All are from the LP and cassette era. The post-Sgt. Pepper, pre-CD era. Albums were, in general, shorter (to expand the canvas, you had to go double-LP, like the sprawling, ambitious Key Of Life, or The River). Pepper is less than 40 minutes. So is Aja (it just feels longer). Horses is around 44. For a lot of people, that was the pinnacle period of The Album, before the CD gave everyone all that extra time to doodle around with, when you had to get to the point and edit yourself. It was also a big time for the Live Album. When audiences go to revisit albums in their entirety, there are two things going on at once: immediacy and reflection, being in the room now, remembering, oh, “Lean On Me” is the next song, or after intermission, Stevie starts side two and it’s “Isn’t She Lovely” time, or it’s there’s only one song left and it’s “Time of The Season.” It’s comforting and familiar, and there are those moments of anticipation. A lot of people probably knew exactly when “Sir Duke” was coming, but when it did, it still was a moment of collective joy, like everyone was opening a present they wanted, even though they’d already peeked and knew what was wrapped for them.

the hall


There’s nothing that can be done about the selection process for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and yet every year around this time the announcement of the nominees is met with the same mixture of outrage, confusion and derision. That’s what they want. What would be the point of a list of nominees that makes everyone say, “That seems about right. Nice going”? I’ve gone on record as being on board with the idea of Janet Jackson and stupefied by the notion of Chicago, of preaching the case for The Zombies and Gram Parsons, and I can’t figure out what the deal is with The Cars, surely the most boring successful live band I ever witnessed, but what does that matter? Why not The Cars? There are worse artists already in there. What does bug me, looking at this year’s list, is that it seems that the Committee has decided that everyone deserving from the 1950s has been ushered in, and that there are only a few loose ends from the last years of the 1960s to tie up, and we can all move on.

This year, the Committee dismissed a group of members whose expertise lies in mid-20th century music, so you can imagine there wasn’t much lobbying on behalf of R&R’s first and second-generation artists who have been overlooked, and that there isn’t likely to be much revision of this in the future, so you can pretty much forget about The Chantels, for example, despite the fact that their young lead singer, Arlene Smith, pretty much set the bar for heartwrenching, soulful despair, or any more Doo Wop groups, or any garage bands, or ‘60s bands like The Turtles, Paul Revere and The Raiders or Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels, or U.K. groups on the margins (The Searchers, Manfred Mann, The Move). The Hall has shown no affection for bands like Mott The Hoople or T. Rex (probably few Brits on the panel), or singer-songwriters like Harry Nilsson, Tim Hardin and Warren Zevon.

Hey, it’s their Hall, and they can do whatever they like, and once in a while lately they’ve gotten something right, probably by accident. The fifteen artists nominated this year wouldn’t have been my fifteen, but I can make a personal argument for maybe half (Los Lobos, Cheap Trick, Miss Jackson, The Smiths…) while trying to figure out what on earth Steve Miller is being recognized for (Miller, but not Doug Sahm, or even Boz Scaggs?). I’m disappointed The Replacements didn’t make the cut, but they still have some time. For most of the neglected artists of the ‘50s and ‘60s time, I’m afraid, has run out.

arista records, r.i.p.


A while back, RCA Records decided to “retire” the Arista and Jive labels. As Tom Corson of RCA said in a 2011 Hollywood Reporter interview, “There may be a reason down the line to bring them back, but it’s a clean slate here. The concept is that there is value in branding RCA and not having it confused or diluted by other labels.” I wish Corson and his colleague Peter Edge well, and it’s foolish to be attached to a name standing on its own with no singular identity or structure behind it — do we mourn that there are no longer, oh, Liberty or RSO Records? — but it was a little like someone telling me that New York City was retiring “The Bronx” and “Queens” as “brands,” and it’s all going to be called “NYC” from now on. Like The Bronx, Arista is a place where I grew up, and I know it hasn’t really existed in a long time, and I left there more than two decades ago, but it’s strange to think that it simply isn’t there anymore. I walked into the doors of Arista in the summer of 1977, a freelance writer on music and movies, not long out of graduate school, and I know I’ve said this a lot, but I really did think I was going to work in one of the coolest joints in town, the label that released Patti Smith’s Horses, was bringing back The Kinks and The Grateful Dead, signing artists like Gil Scott-Heron, Dwight Twilley and General Johnson. Lou Reed was on Arista, and Rick Danko from The Band, and Eric Carmen from Raspberries (I still had faith that “All By Myself” was an aberration). Arista owned the catalog of Savoy Records, and released Taxi Driver, Monty Python and Saturday Night Live albums. Where else would I want to be?

OK, Horses was kind of, well, a Trojan horse, as it turned out. At my first Arista Records product presentation, Clive Davis played a lot of music that made me squirm (Gino Vannelli, maybe? Don McLean? tracks from the forthcoming new album by the label’s biggest male pop star?), but that didn’t matter so much by that point: I was a copywriter at a record company, was soon able to sublet my first Manhattan apartment, and the next decade and a half was as eventful and adventurous as you’d want your first real job to be. The gig you get out of school, when you’re in your twenties and single and, if you’re in the music business, getting all kinds of perks (and this was the late ‘70s, when there were perks to be had, as I assume we’ll see in the upcoming HBO series Vinyl), that’s going to leave an imprint on you forever. I remember nights at CB’s, Hurrah and Trax, seeing Graham Parker and The Rumour at the Palladium when Arista was chasing them down. And the only time I ever set foot in Studio 54 was for Arista’s gala 3rd Anniversary bash.

And then there were the Whitney Years, when the company was making so much fucking money that the company could splurge on Caribbean cruises for the entire staff with stops for A&R lunches with Clive on St. Bart’s, and a party on the private island of Yost Van Dyke. Even the calamities, like an event at Stringfellow’s where members of the media were held hostage while being subjected to the music of “supergroup” GTR, were fun. Get Arista people together, and it’s not the names on the marquee that get talked about, it’s things like Irving and The Twins, Titiyo, Dreams So Real (one of my many A&R stumbles), The KBC Band (a disastrous Jefferson Airplane/Starship spin-off). So what if we had to sit, freezing, in the conference room and listen to multiple tracks by Jermaine Jackson, or try to determine whether the song we were hearing by Kenny G was in any way different than the previous song we heard by Kenny G? Or that we had to watch Taylor Dayne videos? It was a small price to pay.

The Arista catalog is part of RCA now, which is part of Sony, and the Arista logo isn’t on any more music. I’m not sure that’s something to be sentimental about; there are a dozens — hundreds, maybe — of record labels that used to mean something and don’t exist anymore, and some that shouldn’t exist (when is Sony going to decide it doesn’t need Columbia and Epic?). That’s how things go, and I’m sure that if I worked at A&M or Chrysalis, I’d look at the erasure of Arista (and Jive) and shrug. Besides, in a world of streaming, do people even know what label is releasing what music? It’s not as though they’re looking at the logo, so for RCA to talk about the “concept” of “value” in “branding RCA” is kind of adorable and old-school. I sort of follow these things, and I don’t know, most of the time, what division of which of the three major music companies is putting out what. But the thing about Arista, apart from it being the company that took a chance on me and gave me my career and lifelong friends and all that stuff, was that out of the scrappy little pop label that was Bell Records, Clive Davis built brick-by-brick a pop empire. A little plaque at 6 West 57th Street would be nice.

the heart of the matter


I don’t watch American Horror Story, and I haven’t caught up with Fear The Walking Dead, but I can’t imagine seeing anything on television more unsettling than Steven Tyler doing an excruciating duet on Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” with Hayden Panettiere on the season premiere of Nashville. I understand what’s going on here: Tyler’s been in the real Nashville working on a country album for Big Machine — one video, for the track “Love Is Your Name,” has been sent out into the world, and the sight of Tyler roaming around some field (with one rickety shack and clothes hanging on the line) ogling, like the Big Bad Wolf, a young hippie blonde who might be an apparition, is fall-down funny — and ABC is helping out with the marketing. But I don’t think the Country world is going to fall for this. They might, however, be seduced by Don Henley’s Cass County, where he captures some of that old Eagles — let’s not say “magic” — texture on tracks like “Take A Picture of This” and collaborations with Miranda Lambert, Martina McBride and Dolly Parton. Considering how much of modern Country is built on what the Eagles hath wrought, smug, slick guys-will-be-guys posturing, it makes sense that Henley would try to make his move in that sphere. Maybe people have missed his distinctive vocal tone of aggrievement: he always sounds vaguely annoyed by something, and now that he’s in his late 60s, his singing has a natural “you can’t have your ball back” sneer. One thing that Henley and Tyler have in common these days, it seems, is peevishness.

They don’t need to be doing this: The Eagles and Aerosmith can fill arenas with fans willing to pay hundreds of bucks to hear familiar songs, and whatever Cass County or the upcoming Tyler album sell, they aren’t going to rake in private-jet money. Lord knows I’m no fan of Billy Joel, but give him credit for not embarrassing himself, or us, by making a play for relevance with new music, Country or otherwise. Once a month he shows up at Madison Square Garden, sings songs from his catalog, pockets a huge check, and goes home to his new wife and new baby. Or he leaves town for a show, has Amy Schumer and Jennifer Lawrence jump on his piano while he does “Uptown Girl,” and takes over Instagram for twenty-four hours, which as far as I’m concerned is cooler, and more fun, than dragging himself into a studio to do a duet with someone who might help him broaden his constituency by ten or twenty people. I never thought I’d say this, but right now Billy Joel is looking smarter than Keith Richards. The media will never stop worshipping Keith, for good reason, but Crosseyed Heart is a commercial non-starter, barely squeaking into the Top 10, just above a new album by Alabama, just below someone named Andy Mineo. I just found out that Andy Mineo is a “Christian hip-hop artist,” and this week his album debuts a notch higher than Keith’s, and Keith is Keith. That’s just nuts.

Since this is the last week an album can be released and be eligible for Grammy Awards this cycle, there are a bunch of albums that have entered the chart, seven with more sales (or sales-plus-streams) than Crosseyed Heart. One is by David Gilmour, which has to sting, because who would imagine a solo Floyd vs. a solo Stone winding up like that? Two other debuts are albums I’ve been spending significant time with: Lana Del Rey’s Honeymoon and Ryan Adams’ 1989. Del Rey’s album is even more gauzy than her last one, in a good way: she’s like Kim Novak in Vertigo or Bell, Book and Candle, casting a spell with barely a murmur: in the ‘50s, she’d have been making records like Jeri Southern or Julie London, seductive, sleepy bachelor pad music. “Terrence Loves You” and “Music To Watch Boys To” are gorgeous trance-pop, like she’s been woken from a nap, her mind and voice still fuzzy, and stuck in front of a mic with a lyric sheet. Adams pulls off what could have been simply a stunt, covering, track for track, Taylor Swift’s 1989; it’s jangly and dreamy, and it does the reverse of what The Byrds did with Dylan songs — The Byrds found the pop center in “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “All I Really Want To Do,” and Ryan lifts the shiny pop accessories from Swift songs like “Blank Space” and “Bad Blood” — but winds up in a similar zone. “All You Had To Do Was Stay” becomes like a great lost Byrds/Tom Petty track.

It’s a cracked-up place we’re living in. Read John Seabrook’s The Song Machine: Inside The Hit Factory to get frightening insight into how hits are constructed these days, including a depressing chapter on the whole track-plus-topline phenomenon of “songwriting.” If you aren’t part of that Song Machine, it can be scary, especially if you’re someone like Steven Tyler, Don Henley or Keith Richards. The temptation to go down to Nashville must be so strong: at least there, people go into a room and try to write a real song from scratch, like how Tyler and Perry would write with Desmond Child or Mark Hudson. It’s a more familiar world. Or you could do what Keith has always done, start from the riff, except for most of Crosseyed Heart, there was no one with him in that room to turn the riffs into Songs, so before too long it becomes a blur. You could say, I suppose, that Taylor Swift is part of the problem: most of 1989 was concocted with Max Martin and Shellback, the Holland-Dozier-Holland of the Modern Pop Age. But Adams’ take on the album strips some of the shimmering coats of pop paint and reveals alternate layers of craft and heart, like he and Taylor are having a dialog about how these songs work. Even in this age of the topline, there’s a blank space for beauty.

let’s not be L7


I might be mistaken about this, but I believe that “Wooly Bully” is the only song sung in separate movies by two multiple-Oscar-winning actors: Sean Penn in Fast Times At Ridgemont High and Meryl Streep in Ricki and The Flash. That’s pretty heavy, because as versatile as Penn and Streep are, as speckled with grand achievements as their careers may be, there aren’t that many things they’ve both done, so scenes wherein they gamely blast through a classic ‘60s rock tune by Domingo Samudio (that’s Sam The Sham to you) will be fun to see side by side in around 2020 when they’re being jointly honored by the Golden Globes for a lifetime of Exceptional Emoting. It would also make a delightful duet, Jeff Spicoli and Ricki Rendazzo counting “Uno, dos, one, two, tres, quatro!”

Like so many pop-culture landmarks, Sam The Sham and The Pharaohs’ “Wooly Bully” turned 50 years old this year and for some reason I’ve had two discussions about the song in the past week or so: one, on Facebook, about the names of the song’s non-wooly characters (Hattie and Mattie is the consensus, although strangely, there were votes for Hallie and Sally, which I completely don’t understand), and one in person about whether the legacy of “Wooly Bully” is as durable and significant as I believe it to be. What I’ve discovered since that debate is that although the song did not reach #1 nationally (it was stymied by The Beach Boys and The Supremes, not shockingly), it was named Billboard’s Number One Record of The Year, and I should note here that the year’s actual #1 singles included “Downtown,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” “Ticket To Ride,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Yesterday” and “Hang On Sloopy,” and it was also the year “Like A Rolling Stone” came out, so good going, Mr. Samudio.

“Wooly Bully” is nonsense. The Wooly Bully is a two-horned creature (“Here it comes! Here it comes!”) of some sort, with a wooly jaw (that is, a kind of beard), but Mattie and Hattie’s chatter is less creature-specific. Hattie, the more adventurous one, tells Mattie, “Let’s not be L7, come and learn to dance” (“L7” being a slang term, going back to ‘50s Beatniks, for “square”), so has this Wooly Bully become, like the Hully Gully that inspired Samudio, a dance step? It’s a primitive, driving, raucous, ridiculous thing, and it might have become a ‘60s version of a forgotten ‘50s novelty record like “The Purple People Eater,” but it didn’t; it became a staple of the rock and roll repertoire, a bar-band stand-by like “96 Tears” or “Gloria,” and part of my second argument about “Wooly Bully” stemmed from my position that I would rather, from a historical-cultural standpoint, although obviously not from a financial one, have made one “Wooly Bully” or “96 Tears” (or, needless to say, “Louie Louie” or “Wild Thing”) than the collected works of Genesis, including the solo projects of Collins and Gabriel. “Wooly Bully,” from the moment it hit the radio in 1965, was covered extensively, internationally. Spanish-singing garage bands, in particular, embraced it for obvious reasons: Los Shains, Los Johnny Jets, Los Teen Tops, Los Rockin’ Deviis, Los Freddys…all did it as “Bule Bule.” It was done in Italian, in Chinese. in French. Singapore’s “A Go-Go Queen” Rita Chao did it as “凌雲 我不能没有你”

It was interpreted by The Sir Douglas Quintet, The Swingin’ Medallions, The Bobby Fuller Four, covered instrumentally by The Ventures, Ace Cannon and Hal Blaine, but none of that was the least bit unusual for the ‘60s; when a single took over the charts, the song turned up on dozens of albums. That was common practice. But “Wooly Bully”’s post-’65 life — up to this year’s inclusion in the Jonathan Demme-directed Streep vehicle –has been wildly impressive for such a goofball of a composition. Hugh Laurie hasn’t won an Oscar yet, but he’s grabbed some Golden Globes, SAG Awards. People’s Choice Awards and six Emmy nominations (plus: he’s a Brit, so added prestige), and he’s performed “Wooly Bully.” When Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band headlined at the Harley Davidson Festival in Milwaukee (2008), “Wooly Bully” was part of the set. That suave crooner Bryan Ferry’s done it, and so have The Great Gonzo, Rizzo The Rat and Fozzie Bear. It’s a crazy-long list: Joan Jett and The Blackhearts, Los Lobos, The Smithereens. Ry Cooder, Canned Heat, Elton John with The Bread and Beer Band. It’s been done as ska (Bad Manners), as punk-rock (Eddie and The Hot Rods). Kubrick used it in Full Metal Jacket. And Wiki informs me that there is an Iranian version (“Atal Matal”) by a group called Zinguala Ha.

The crossroads of genius and stupidity is where so much great rock and roll sets up camp, records knocked off in two or three takes, where genres collide for a few minutes (or less: “Wooly Bully” is around 140 seconds) and lyrics are alternately exclaimed and garbled. Friends of mine insisted that Sam The Sham is saying “Hand job! Hand job!” at the beginning of the song (the “Here it comes! Here It comes!” part being so slurred), and other people puzzled over the “don’t you be L7” line. And what is he saying before starting the first verse?: “Watch it it’ll get ya.” I tried to figure that out for 50 years,until I discovered the video above. But it never mattered. Because it’s a song that makes Jeff Spicoli run up to the stage and sing along (he doesn’t know a lot, but this he knows), Springsteen shout it at a biker event, kids learn it from Muppets and Chipmunks. It’s a song that connects Hugh Laurie and Meryl Streep to Doug Sahm and Joan Jett. Because no one wants to be L7.

don’t know much about history…


“School bells ring and children sing, it’s back to Robert Hall again,” and there are a dozen words that, if you’re of a certain age, might make you queasy, because here it is the end of August and no one, not even Les Paul and Mary Ford, can put a glow on the memories of packing up all the summer stuff and preparing for another year of school, going to the five-and-ten for loose-leaf notebooks and pencil cases and reinforcements and dreading a new homeroom teacher and hating the idea of gym. They were agony, the last days of summer, and yet for some reason there are pop records that attempt to make the prospect of buying a protractor and starting a new semester into a fun thing. What were they thinking? Gary (U.S.) Bonds had a rowdy, eruptive hit with “School Is Out,” but has there ever been a more misguided follow-up than “School Is In”? Honestly, “I’m so glad that school is in” is something that no one said ever, but the premise of the Bonds recording is that his summer was a drag, doing chores and so forth, so getting back to his studies is like a reprieve, and Daddy G blows his sax like this is going to be one big party, and no one bought it for a second. This was in the center of a cluster of five Top 10 hits for Mr. Bonds, but ‘School Is In” could climb no higher than #28.

The idea of school in rock & roll — Chuck Berry’s “School Days,” Ricky Nelson’s “Waitin’ In School” — was that the time until 3:00 pm was something you had to suffer through until you could bolt out of your seat and start to rock, so the notion of school being in any way groovy was bizarre, but then came Bobby Rydell’s “Swingin’ School,” and boy, he could not sound any more excited: “Chicks! Kicks! Cats! Cool!” he yells, and apparently his school allows dancing because that’s one of the things he’s so jazzed about, along with his classmates’ fashion sense. Also, the way his chick kisses him puts the school on fire; it’s not so much the school itself that’s swingin’, but an awfully relaxed code of conduct, Rydell’s labelmate Timmie Rogers, on “Back To School Again,” had a more common reaction: “Bye bye good times, back to school again. No more swimmin’, hello history.” And on “When School Stars Again,” Anthony Perkins, yes, that Anthony Perkins, is all moony about whether his summer fling will remember all the fun they had and the records they played. “Who’s gonna be talkin’ to you in the hall?,” he asks, as though that’s any of his concern. Perkins also cut a single, “The Prettiest Girl In School,” so who is he to speculate about what his beach baby is up to in the fall?.”

Dee Clark says that he misses his teachers and is determined to get a diploma on “I’m Going Back To School.” “All the pretty girls, that’s where they’ll all be,” he says, which does sound like a strong incentive not to drop out, and in the middle of the track he stops singing to ask some of his friends if they’re going to be at school, and when one of them (Humphrey) says he doesn’t think he’s going to make it, Dee tells him they’ll miss him on the football team. School spirit! Like Gary (U.S.) Bonds, Clark made a dramatic stumble with this lyrical approach: his prior single, “Raindrops,” was #2 during the summer; this one didn’t make the Top 50, and he never had another hit again. Bo Diddley stuck his “Back To School” on the B-side of his last single to make the Hot 100, and We Three’s neo-doo-wop “Back To School” (on Courtney Records) didn’t even chart. Neither did Wilbert Harrison and His Kansas City Playboys’ Doc 45 “Off To School Again.” Or “School Bells Are Ringing” by Carole King, which shared a 45 with her Labor Day Weekend lament “I Didn’t Have Any Summer Romance” (so going back to school, not such a big deal).

Kids seemed to enjoy school more out in L.A.: there’s The Beach Boys’ “Be True To Your School” and “All Dressed Up For School,” and Jan & Dean extolling the charms of “The New Girl In School.” But happy-to-be-back songs are far less common than get-me-out-here songs. Or school-fucked-me-up songs like Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome,” The Ramones’ Rock’N’Roll High School” (first words: “”Well I don’t care about history”), or Graham Parker’s great spitball at the teacher’s neck, “Back To Schooldays.” He going back all right, but he’s pissed off.

Now, if I seem just a might confused
Don’t give me all of the blame boys
Twenty-four years just obeying the rules
No wonder I’m half-insane boys

School bells ring, but that doesn’t mean we have to be happy about it.