you make everything groovy


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

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

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

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

my tears are like crystals, they cover my windowpane


How to explain why hearing that Lee Andrews had passed away gave me such a rush of sadness, why I was so moved by his son Questlove’s tribute to him? To most people, I suspect, reading Questlove’s online post was the first time they’d heard the name Lee Andrews, and they might well have wondered what #leeandrewsandthehearts referred to. But I’ve been immersed in the world of doo wop for a long time, and recently on a more intense level, so to me, knowing Lee Andrews was gone was yet another reminder that there is a generation of singers that is vanishing, and with them, all the links to a nearly forgotten street in the city of popular music of the 20th century. Most of those singers weren’t stars; there are only a handful in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But they were in the air. They were the air. Their songs were a wellspring of emotion, and in their quiet way they made history. Vocal harmony in the 1950’s changed the world in ways small and grand, and anyone who relegates that sound to mere nostalgia, to malt shop memories, is a fool. The Moonglows, The Heartbeats, The Flamingos, Little Anthony and The Imperials, Dion and The Belmonts, The 5 Royales, The Harptones, Lee Andrews and The Hearts and countless others were the sound of a young America, its sentimentality, its impetuousness, its belief in the possibility of love, its magnification of every heartbreak. Lee Andrews and The Hearts from Philadelphia sang “Long Lonely Nights,” a song that needs to be heard on a transistor radio at 2 am, a song that can wreck you. It’s not that the singer misses his girlfriend, he’s haunted by her, and the void she’s left behind is limitless.

As I go along my lonely way I visualize your face
When I pass through my doorway
What’s left for me to face?

“What’s left for me to face?” A lot of people don’t realize how filled with existential dread so much doo wop is, how the loss of love becomes the loss of self, how deep singers like Lee Andrews had to dig to transcend the elementary poetry, simple enough for any fourteen-year-old listening to Alan Freed on WINS to grasp and take to heart. Think of “Tear Drops” from 1957, the biggest national hit Lee Andrews and The Hearts ever had. One note is plunked on the piano, like: “now,” and the vocal begins, “I sit in my room looking out at the rain/My tears are like crystals, they cover my windowpane.” Then the rest of the group comes in, and the mea culpa continues: “I know you’ll never forgive me dear for running out on you/I was wrong to take a chance on somebody new.” By the time the song hits the 1:30 mark, you’re thinking, 1) how did he screw this relationship up so terribly?, and 2) why is this song called “Tear Drops”? In that second line, he mentions those windowpane-covering tears (how does that work, exactly?), and if the song has a chorus (it doesn’t, really), it feels as though it should be “oh, if we only could start over again.” But then The Hearts chant “Tear Drops” a few times, almost as taunting counterpoint, or a bridge, and although the song is about asking forgiveness, and hoping for another chance, it seems futile. What the song is really about is despair.

Lee Andrews and The Hearts had only one more Billboard chart single, 1958’s “Try The Impossible,” but that wasn’t the end of his story. He jumped around from label to label for quite a while, doing time at two of the most significant pop labels in Philadelphia, Swan (a nice version of the standard “P.S. I Love You” is in that catalog, and “I Miss You So”) and Parkway (highlights: “I’m Sorry Pillow” and “Gee, But I’m Lonesome”) and briefly on UA and RCA (“Quiet As It’s Kept,” a Northern Soul thing), and there are some fine later records on Crimson (the Motownish “Never The Less”). You have to assemble all this on your own since, sadly, there is no one source that gathers together all of Lee Andrews’s discography and puts it in perspective, the early work with The Hearts, the later solo singles. He was one of those singers who snuck away, name-checked by any doo wop aficionado who knows anything, but whose importance can’t be measured by chart singles or industry awards. In mourning Lee Andrews, we mourn so many of his fellow singers, voices that stopped us in our tracks when we heard the original records on Gus Gossert’s radio show and made us hunt everything down. They made records that were heart-wrenching but also hopeful. “Try The Impossible” goes, “Tell me you want me, and our love will conquer all,” and that was the flip side of doo wop, the belief that, in love, you have to take a leap of faith:

“Make the impossible, the incredible
And all of my dreams come true”

get your kicks in ’66


When 1966 began, the top 20 singles in New York City included records by The Beatles, The Byrds, The Rolling Stones, James Brown, The Righteous Brothers, The Animals, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Frank Sinatra and Simon & Garfunkel. As it ended, among the chart’s occupants were The Four Tops. The Mamas and the Papas, Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels, The Temptations, The Supremes and The 4 Seasons. It was the year Motown peaked, The Beach Boys released Pet Sounds, Dylan released Blonde on Blonde, and The Velvet Underground, Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience made their debuts, and a whole bunch of singles that were compiled on Nuggets came out. It was, as the subtitle of Jon Savage’s new book 1966 calls it, “the year the decade exploded,” and he doesn’t mean just musically. Covering the year month by month, he ties the records – singles, mostly – to the social and political swirl of events: Vietnam, Black Power, gay rights and feminism, drugs and fashion, scene-making from London to the Sunset Strip, choosing some representative 45s, some well-known (“Good Vibrations,” “Winchester Cathedral,” “19th Nervous Breakdown) and some less so (Norma Tanega’s “Walking My Cat Named Dog,””My Mind’s Eye” by the Small Faces) as illustrations.

There may have never been a pop year so alive with invention, a more perfect intersection of what was good and what was popular, a year when, before the great divide between AM and FM, nothing “didn’t fit.” Look at the hot singles list from exactly a half-century ago, a not-untypical combination of Motown (“This Old Heart of Mine,” ”Shake Me, Wake Me”), The Beatles and The Stones, blues and soul (Slim Harpo, Wilson Pickett), LA-pop like “California Dreamin’” and “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’,” and there was room for “I Fought The Law,” “Good Lovin’” and “Inside-Looking Out.” Is it any wonder so many kids kept their radios on constantly? That may have been pop’s last gasp. As Savage writes, “It wasn’t called that yet in the UK, but late 1966 was the moment when rock began.” In his last chapters, he describes Brian Wilson endlessly tracking what would have been Smile, and The Beatles laboring over “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and the blasts of something new that were Cream’s “I Feel Free” and Hendrix’s “Hey Joe.” If you want to draw a pop/rock dividing line, you might as well start there.

The 2-CD set that’s the book’s companion is like spending two hours tuned to the hippest hit station of ’66, even if it doesn’t have any Beatles, Stones or Dylan (I might stick “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” on the 1966 playlist for fun, and “Paint It, Black” and “Rain”). If you can’t get jazzed about “96 Tears” leading into “I Can’t Turn You Loose” and then into the apocalyptic Motown masterpiece “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” then pop doesn’t matter much to you, and Savage mixes those up with rare tracks by The Oxford Circle, Blue Things and The Tornados (the surreal, gay-coded, Joe Meek-produced “Do You Come Here Often?”). The final three tracks of the second disc are Bowie’s “The London Boys,” The Marvelettes’ Smokey opus “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game” and Tim Hardin’s “Hang On To A Dream.” You or I might pick three different singles to represent the end of 1966, but it’s hard to imagine they’d be better.

Looming over the last hundred or so pages of 1966 is a politician running for high office. He “was on the crest of a wave…He directly addressed public concerns about the apparently unraveling social fabric, speaking out passionately about rising crime levels, moral turpitude…and the riots that seemed to be spreading….[He] stood for old-fashioned values, the right of business to be unimpeded, the rule of law and order and, above all, patriotism.” He hadn’t held elected office, had hosted a television show, and scared his constituency with warnings about protesters, Black Panthers, free-speech advocates at Berkeley. That November – as records like “Bang! Bang!” by Joe Cuba, “Walk Away Renee” by The Left Banke and “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” by Jimmy Ruffin made the top 10 vibrant and eclectic – the people of California elected Ronald Reagan their Governor.

the gaga goodtimes variety hour

I think it was that song “Applesauce” – oh, sorry, “Applause” – that first had me wondering what was up with Lady Gaga. Was this irony? Self-awareness? Was she serious? She struck me from the start as someone who probably watched her VHS copy of Fame way too many times, a driven young woman who could have existed in any era; in the ‘30s, she’d have been Ruby Keeler, who showed up in musicals up to her armpits in spunkiness and clunked around the set; in the ‘50s, she’d have knocked on every door in the Brill Building, belting for every mini-mogul who might be able to whip her into a proximity of Connie Francis or Jo Ann Campbell; she’d have been most at home in the ‘70s, cutting a few upbeat easy-listening singles and then getting a summer-replacement variety show on one of the networks, where she could do tribute medleys, duets, and comedy bits with David Frye and Franklin Ajaye. She has that up-for-anything eagerness that Cher and Midler have.

I used to see girls like that all over the city, going on auditions, doing showcases at The Bitter End, getting small roles off-off Broadway, recording demos, hitting the clubs. If Gaga had anything special going on, I missed it, but I’ve missed things before, and as time went on, it looked like I must have been mistaken, because look: Elton digs her, and so does Tony, and she’s showing up everywhere. Even Howard Stern was smitten when she went on his show and screamed something that went “The edge! The edge! The edge!’ like she was in the pit at a U2 concert. It seemed overwrought and jokey to me, but friends told me differently. She was real, they insisted, even as the music reminded me of Taylor Dayne.

She can really sing!, I heard tell, and then I saw her on the Oscars doing a medley from The Sound of Music. See! Very nice, really. But you could fling a rock down Broadway from 50th Street and randomly hit an understudy in any musical now playing who could have done that, not to mention any true musical theater star like Kelli O’Hara, Sutton Foster or Audra McDonald. Gaga got extra credit, I think, for being from the pop world, for the element of the unexpected: that girl who wore the dress made of meat? She has a voice? Who knew? And that album with Tony Bennett just made me sad, because that was the album he should have made with Amy Winehouse, an artist who could have done emotional justice to that material and that history, who never gave the impression of playing dress-up the way Gaga does. Gaga flings herself into the role of slinky chanteuse, but she’s only moderately convincing. Check out the scenes of Bennett and Winehouse in the heart-shattering doc Amy, and weep. But the calls kept coming: she’s doing a Sinatra tribute. Oy. What could that be? I was hoping for “Everybody’s Twistin’,” but they gave her “(Theme From) New York, New York,” and as anyone might have predicted, it was far closer to an impression of the song’s original interpreter Liza Minnelli than to the Chairman of the Board. It’s fine, that’s who Gaga is, an entertainer from the old school, and if she did have that ‘70s variety show, that’s what it’d have been: Julie Andrews one week, Liza the next, then maybe a six-minute medley of songs by that hip new rock star David Bowie.

Oh, wait. That wasn’t her imaginary variety show. That was the actual 2016 Grammy Awards, a spectacle so transcendently goofy that it made all the liberties and inaccuracies of HBO’s Vinyl look like a Pennebaker documentary. The next day, I posted a puzzled comment on Facebook, and my smart-ass friends made some brilliant comparisons, like one observation that Gaga was channeling Lola Heatherton, Catherine O’Hara’s character from SCTV (to which I added that Seth MacFarlane could be her Bobby Bittman), or another calling it a lost sketch from a Carol Burnett Show. As counterpoint, some people rallied to Gaga’s defense, praised her artistry (in general, not in the specific case of the Bowie debacle), and pointed out that as an older gentleman, I might not be the right demographic to appreciate the glory of Gaga. Which I don’t deny, but as someone who thinks Taylor Swift’s Red and Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream are pretty exemplary Pop Albums, and has sat riveted during a Swift arena show whilst being the oldest non-parent/chaperone in the room, I don’t completely buy that it’s a sign of aging. I think, honestly, that Gaga really does live for the applesauce.

who are the beatles?

the_beatles_abbey_road_album_cover_photo_session (3)

Pop history is reductive, and skewed. A friend forwarded along a Spotify list published in Billboard of popular Beatles songs broken down by demographics, and while a lot of the statistics are baffling (is “Mean Mr. Mustard” really the third most-popular Beatles track among streamers aged 55-plus? What’s with 30-34 year olds and “Hello Goodbye” and “Ob-La-Di. Ob-La-Da”? How does “You Never Give Me Your Money” rank as a stand-alone #6 song among the 18-24 group?), what’s evident is that the younger you are, the more you listen to “Here Comes The Sun.” In the 17-and-under demo, that’s the #1 track, and when you reach those from 18-to-24, it comes in second only to “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” (And yet somehow, in the boomerest demo, 55-plus, “I Want To Hold Your Hand,””She Loves You”– #1 in the 30-34 gang – “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “A Hard Day’s Night” don’t even make the top 10. The only 1964 track that makes that list is “Do You Want To Know A Secret.”) I’m no statistician, but I’ve been looking over these seven top ten lists looking for any patterns that make sense. What albums are the tracks on? What cultural anomalies come into play? Why do people under 18 play “Love Me Do” more than any other age group does? Why, after not appearing on any other list, does the cover of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” leap to #1 on the 55+ chart? Who are The Beatles? The answer seems to be: it depends on how old you are.

Like, 45-54 year olds make “Back In The U.S.S.R.” their #1, but no other cuts from The Beatles (aka The White Album) are anywhere in the top ten. “Let It Be” is in the youngest demo’s top ten, then vanishes, apparently, until you hit 45 years old. So from 18 through 44, you’re not in the mood to hear “Let It Be” all that much, and then you are, and then not so much anymore once you turn 55? And what to make of the fact that “I Am The Walrus” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” are nowhere (“Penny Lane” is on every under-30 list), but if you’re under 25, “Come Together” is one of your favorites? There is a big “We Can Work It Out” spike 35 through 54, but that demo doesn’t care as much for the superior flip side, “Day Tripper.” Some number one singles, “All You Need Is Love”,” “Eight Days A Week,” are out of every top ten, but the boomer chart contains “Glass Onion” and “Long, Long, Long.” I haven’t done a mathematical breakdown, but it looks like it’s the 25-to-29’s who gravitate most towards the earlier stuff (“From Me To You,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Love Me Do”), and they’re the only group that loves “Norwegian Wood” (#4).

On most all-time-albums surveys, Sgt. Pepper is way up at or near the top, and even if Rubber Soul and Revolver have weathered better musically, you still see Pepper floating up there in historical terms, but the streaming population doesn’t seem to be that impressed. “With A Little Help From My Friends” is on one list (18-24), the title track and “A Day In The Life” on a couple of others, and that’s it. No Lucy or Rita or Mr. Kite, no “Fixing A Hole” or “She’s Leaving Home” anywhere: it looks like people play the first and last tracks and don’t poke around much further, and you can say it’s because there were no singles on it, but that can’t be the whole explanation, can it? The charts are very singles-heavy, but other odd tracks do sneak in.

Why do people under 25 play “Here Comes The Sun” so much? And why is it so high (#1 or #2) on similar iTunes and Amazon charts? Of all the revelations on the Spotify charts, this stands out. It’s the only non-single on the under-18 list, and beats the Abbey Road single “Come Together” in the 18-24 demo. I don’t think it’s part of a Harrison renaissance, despite “Long, Long, Long” and “Something” turning up (surprise: “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” isn’t on these lists). I was going to chalk it up to the Glee factor: it was sung by Naya Rivera and Demi Lovato in a 2013 Beatles-themed episode, and on the Glee Sings The Beatles soundtrack album. But George’s “Something” is on that album also, and so are “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” and “I Saw Her Standing There,” and none of those are top ten streams for the under-25 set. Was it a big grade-school sing-along (maybe: “Yellow Submarine” is big with that demo)? I have to guess that people in that age group (conscious-to-24) are doing the most streaming, which would mean that the 1-and-2 placing of “Here Comes The Sun” makes it the most streamed Beatles song on Spotify and combined with the other music services means it’s now, at least by this measurement, the Most Popular Beatles Track. Who’d have ever thought that would happen?: a late-period non-single, not written by John and/or Paul. Who are The Beatles? Keep asking, and the answer keeps changing.

it’s those restless hearts that never mend


Disdain is so easy, isn’t it? You look at the bodies of work of certain artists — even more, maybe, than the work, the overall persona that comes through the music — and you find yourself thinking in the terms proposed in Robert Palmer’s famous New York Times review of a Billy Joel concert: “He’s the sort of popular artist who makes elitism seem not just defensible but necessary.” Substitute “they” for “he” in that sentence and you could be talking about Journey, or Styx, or the Eagles. It isn’t so much that there’s an embedded badness in how their music is executed (anyone might say that there are elements of craftsmanship or proficiency), but that they come across as inherently unlikable to a certain type of observer, a type of observer disproportionately represented in the rock critic population to which I belonged (belong? does one turn in those credentials at any point?). So I can say I don’t like the Eagles, or Mr. Joel (as the Times would have it), and let that be that, but as most things are, it’s more complicated. What about when Billy Joel, on tracks on An Innocent Man, proves himself an adept mimic of early-‘60s pop styles, demonstrates a genuine affection for doo wop? What about when he delivers impassioned, eloquent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame speeches on behalf of The Drifters and The Righteous Brothers? Can I really be so dismissive of that Billy Joel because I couldn’t listen one more time to “You May Be Right” or “Big Shot” or “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me”? Or, God save me, “My Life”? A little perspective is nice, sometimes.

Which brings us to the Eagles, and Glenn Frey, and everything you have to blot out to get to the point where you (I) can live and let live and confess that there isn’t a California Playlist you’ve made that doesn’t include “New Kid In Town,” a song and a performance — from an album whose title track (“Hotel California”) ranks up there with “American Pie” as a smug, “cryptic” rock anthem — that threads together country-rock with hints of Del Shannon and Roy Orbison. Unlike “Hotel California,” which strikes me as labored and faux-weighty, “New Kid In Town” feels breezy on the surface, but within the song, and Frey’s vocal, is a sense of foreboding. Look, I’m in league with everyone who’s ever noted how the Eagles drained so much of the soulfulness and integrity of The Flying Burrito Brothers, slicked it up and made it a commercial machine, but if you told me “New Kid In Town” was written by Gram Parsons and not by Frey, Henley & Souther, I wouldn’t be shocked at all. And there are a few other Eagles hits (“I Can’t Tell You Why” by Frey, Henley & Timothy Schmidt, their debut 45 “Take It Easy,” started by Jackson Browne and completed by Frey, even, I have to say, “Lyin’ Eyes”) that make the band undismissible despite “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and “Witchy Woman.”

Frey’s death brought out all the accumulated resentment of his band, a band whose arrogance was on full display in the recent History of the Eagles doc, whose live shows might as well have been performed by marble statues with wigs and guitars, who gave the world “Life In The Fast Lane” and “Already Gone” (blame, at least in part, Joe Walsh and Jack Tempchin for those). That’s all fair enough, but it’s hard to hate, full-on hate, a band who covered (pretty convincingly) songs by Tom Waits, Gene Clark and Steve Young, did time in the country-rock outfits of Rick Nelson, Gram Parsons and Linda Ronstadt (I first saw Frey and Henley back her up in ’71), and inspired the Fred Armisen and Bill Hader homage Gentle and Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee. I understand the impulse to want to punch them, because they seem like guys who would have stolen the Ramones’ lunch money in high school, because if they were Beach Boys, they’d all be Mike Love. Because oh, there are dozens of reasons (“Chug All Night,” for example). But I have to step back and confess, every time “New Kid In Town” comes on, I hit repeat.

the meaninglessness of popularity


The woman at the anchor desk seemed to be struggling with the concept of David Bowie. Or, I should say, with the concept of why she was talking about David Bowie. She was riffling through her notecards trying to find a clue as she interviewed the poor guy who was there to explain why Bowie is important. David Bowie only had two number one singles, she read, never had a number one album, and oh, he collaborated with some famous people like John Lennon and Trent Reznor (at first she said “Trent Resnick” until, I guess, someone muttered into her earpiece). Obviously Bowie Meant Something, otherwise why is a news channel covering his death, but since it couldn’t be quantified by number of hits or Grammy Awards, it was difficult to convey what he meant, at least in the context of the news cycle. And it struck me, as it does often, how valueless these standards of measurement are.

Bowie was more than “popular’ or “famous.” Anyone can be popular and famous for a while and wind up meaning nothing. I’m working on a project now involving the history of a record label and lists are being tossed around of the songs that got the highest on one chart or another, but time has judged a lot of those hits harshly, while songs and artists that got lost commercially are, in retrospect, remembered more fondly, made more of a lasting imprint. The label isn’t Capitol or Warner Brothers, but let’s say it is. Helen Reddy and Christopher Cross were super-popular artists for a while on those labels, and is there anyone who thinks either of them matters? Massive Popularity is often bestowed on the truly worthy, The Beatles and The Stones, Elvis, Michael Jackson, Taylor Swift and Adele, but it has been known to strike whimsically and inexplicably.

David Bowie never had a multi-platinum album in his entire career, while Celine Dion and Michael Bolton had many. That’s just how things break sometimes, and there’s no reason to get in a twist about it: all it means is that for a moment, the planets aligned in some wacky way and a few million people were seduced into spending ten bucks on something that gave them temporary pleasure. It’s always been like that: in the 1950s, Pat Boone and Connie Francis sold skillions of 45s, Carl Perkins and Wanda Jackson sold far, far fewer, but which artists made music that anyone is still listening to? Which are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and which don’t have a prayer? Paul Anka wrote a whole lot of hits, but it’s Bert Berns who’s being inducted into the Hall of Fame this year.

Schlock wins for a while, and can be inspired or touched by greatness (the voice of Karen Carpenter, say), but there isn’t much schlock that has adhesive power. Popular schlock of any era winds up in thrift store bins, and you can imagine the process: “What was I thinking?,” and then the sad stacking of the vinyl on the store counter. It’s like a musical walk of shame: I know, I was an idiot, but I thought in a weak moment that this spoke to me. It was the syrupy saxophone, it was that key modulation, I was vulnerable. That’s not how people adopted Diamond Dogs or Aladdin Sane or Low. I think about Greta Gerwig romping down the street to “Modern Love” in Frances Ha, or Emma Watson in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, ecstatic as “Heroes” plays. That’s not momentary infatuation, something that you outgrow or become embarrassed about, that’s true love. The woman at the anchor desk was trying to desconstruct chart positions, trying to make some sense of what went beyond record sales. For so many people I know, Bowie was nothing like a fling, he was the whole world.

there’s no controlling the unrolling of your fate, my friend


“This Could Be The Start of Something” is on an album that was played a lot in my Bronx apartment, sung by the duo of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, written by talk show host Steve Allen, who boasted of cleffing hundreds of pop tunes, only a few of which seeped into the public consciousness and none as memorably as this one. It has a dose of jet-set New Frontier optimism, but it predates JFK’s incumbency by a good half-dozen years: Allen used it as a theme for his TV gigs, and it entered the pop and jazz repertoire pretty quickly. It’s a musical meet-cute; “You’re walking along the street or you’re at a party,” it kicks off, “or else you’re alone and then you suddenly dig…,” and it’s that “dig” that sells it. Allen was somewhat hip — he had jazz cats on his show, and Lenny Bruce, and cut an LP with Kerouac — and although he was completely out of it when it came to rock & roll, notoriously condescending, he had a grasp on some cool corners of the culture, and “This Could Be The Start of Something” has a modern zip.

Look out, the song says, there’s a surprise just around the corner (Bernstein and Sondheim tapped that same well for “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, and I can’t figure out why I can’t find a medley of those two songs anywhere: surely some nightclub crooner welded them together. How did that idea not hit Louis Prima or Sammy Davis Jr.?). It’s basically a list song, you’re doing this, you’re doing that, and wham!, so it lends itself to riffing on the theme. Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan, in particular, take it on a zingy, be-bopping ride, and Buddy Greco does his I’m-so-with-it variations, and they’re both fun versions, but I’ve been gravitating to the one by Mark Murphy, a jazzy singer who passed away last year and took the song for a casual stroll. Hey, I’m just out here doing my thing, open to all sorts of possibilities, but not sweating it.

How many sets in how many showrooms did this song segue out of the first burst of applause? You almost had to open with it, right? Because anywhere else in the set it sounds like the beginning of another act. The song is in the present tense, not “I was walking along the street and I met her/him,” so it pulls you into the action, and so if you were at the Sahara (Tony Bennett) or the Crescendo (Ella Fitzgerald), or in the Columbia studios recording a “live” album (Aretha’s Yeah!!!), or Basin Street East (the aforementioned Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan), it made sense to use it as a welcoming number. It takes the audience on a tour: you’re at Sardi’s or 21, you’re up in an airplane, you’re ordering wine in a dim cafe, and no matter where you are, out of the clear blue sky, it’s suddenly gal and guy. When Sammy Davis Jr. hosted Hullaballoo c.’65, he did some unfortunate pandering — “You’re out at a discotheque and doing the Freddie,” he starts off, and it’s a long slide from there — and someone from Motown convinced Marvin Gaye it’d be a good idea to incorporate it into his set at the Copa. It was not. It was handled with woeful results by Bobby Rydell, with considerable swagger by Bobby Darin, and on her TV show, Dusty Springfield flubbed through it as a duet with Georgie Fame.

Skip over the more routine pop renditions (Jack Jones, The Four Freshmen, even Steve & Eydie, though that one has a snappy bounce) and go to the jazzier side, Lorez Alexandria (the woefully underrated singer who made terrific albums for King, Argo and Impulse), Oscar Peterson, the trombone duo of J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding, The Johnny Griffith Trio, Basie, Jamal. “This Could Be The Start of Something” is all wide-eyed and open-hearted. If it’s ever been done as a ballad, I haven’t heard it. The song steps out into the fresh air with a you-never-know whistle on its lips. “Ba-ba-ba-ba-BA-ba-da,” a little cheerful punch on the fifth note. It’s a new day, anything might happen. Of the many instrumental versions, I get the biggest kick of the one played with hip dexterity by guitarist Grant Green, along with Larry Young on organ and Elvin Jones on drums (Hank Mobley, also on the Blue Note session, takes a break on this track). It shuffles along and stretches out, a winding road to the unanticipated. Because, you know, sometimes you’re alone and then you suddenly dig.

snuff, carole & bobby


Gerry Goffin & Carole King’s “Take Good Care of My Baby,” produced for Liberty Records by Snuff Garrett and sung by Bobby Vee, hit #1 smack in the middle of the era that official histories of rock and pop music tell us was a creative ditch, a period of time when early rock & roll had lost its mojo and the world was just waiting for The Beatles to come along, but I care not at all for that theory, or that people dismiss this as the Age of The Bobbys. When I heard “Take Good Care of My Baby,” I asked my father to drive me into town from the bungalow colony where we spent my childhood summers, so I could purchase the Liberty 45 at the five-and-ten. Unluckily for me, and for my dad, the first copy I bought had a scratch in it, so we had to make a second trip for more playable vinyl, and then I played that single over and over. It seemed perfect to me and still does, and I’ve been thinking about it in the days since Snuff Garrett passed away, and since CBS aired the Kennedy Center Honors show where Carole King was one of the honorees.

There was a nice tribute to King’s songs therein, and everyone now knows that Miss Aretha Franklin shook the walls of the Kennedy Center so mightily that JFK could have felt it from deep in his grave, but the show didn’t include the songs that Carole wrote for Bobby Vee. They’re songs that don’t get covered much, but as a kid, I bought every one of them: “How Many Tears” (which came right before “Take Good Care of My Baby”), “Walking With My Angel,” “I Can’t Say Goodbye,” “Sharing You.” “Run To Him” (by Goffin with Jack Keller) was like a shot at Orbisonian operatics scaled down to Veeish proportions, an exercise in romantic selflessless and sacrifice, while its Goffin-King flip side was, well, its flip side: the elation of strolling through town with a devoted girl on his arm. You can dismiss the Vee-Garrett records as teen soap-opera, but on the radio they shined like a new silver dime, and they helped form my ideas about how simple and heart-tugging a pop single could be.

And look at the songs that surrounded “Take Good Care of My Baby” on the radio: “My True Story” by The Jive Five, “Hurt” by Timi Yuro, “Crying” by Roy Orbison, dramatic epics all. And Bert Berns’ “A Little Bit of Soap” with The Jarmels, Pomus & Shuman’s “Little Sister” b/w “His Latest Flame” for Elvis, “The Mountain’s High” by Dick & DeeDee, ‘School Is Out” by Gary U.S. Bonds. The Dovells’ “Bristol Stomp” was climbing the charts, and so were Dion’s “Runaround Sue,” The Chantels’ “Look In My Eyes” and Ray Charles’ “Hit The Road Jack,” so you can be dismissive all you like about the pre-Beatles ‘60s, but pop music was brimming over with emotion and exuberance. While Vee was circling the top spot, not far behind was Tony Orlando with Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil’s “Bless You” (and Mann himself with “Who Put The Bomp”). For a kid in the very first phase of a lifelong music-listening fixation, these 45s (and early Phil Spector’s “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” with Curtis Lee and “Every Breath I Take” with Gene Pitney, another Goffin & King triumph) were a pop foundation.

You could, I suppose, use Snuff Garrett as a case study in the compromises of commercial pop, point to his records with Johnny Burnette at Liberty as schlockification, the reigning-in of the untamed rampage of Burnette’s records with his Rock & Roll Trio. Garrett and Burnette’s “Dreamin’,””You’re Sixteen” and “Little Boy Sad,” with their plonking strings and sentimentality, were a long way from “Eager Beaver Baby.” But those singles, and the utterly crazy 1961 non-hit “Clown Shoes,” where Burnette’s fiancé buys him a beautifully-wrapped gift, only to humiliate him with the titular footwear, are laden with pop trickery, and so are his singles with Gene McDaniels, like ‘61’s “A Hundred Pounds of Clay” and “Tower of Strength,” and the following year’s even more berserk “Chip Chip” and Goffin & King’s “Point of No Return.” Garrett somehow managed to wring a top 5 single out of the creaky vocal stylings of Walter Brennan (and the piano playing of Leon Russell) with 1962’s “Old Rivers.”

Garrett went on to produce hits with Gary Lewis & The Playboys (and, with Russell, an oddball album with Gary’s dad, The Jerry Lewis Singers: Yesterday and Other Folk-Rock Hits, which sorry to say does not include a Jerry lead vocal on “It’s Ain’t Me Babe”), Cher and others, but he may have never topped “Take Good Care of My Baby”; the blueprint for his production is there in Carole’s piano demo, all the melodic moves, the way the arrangement builds, the little flourishes and counterpoints. It was all there from the start, and I’ve heard that Goffin & King initially offered it to Dion, but that would’ve been a mistake (he did cut it, and it feels half-hearted); Dion was up to something tougher and less swoony at that point. In Vee and Garrett’s hands, it blossomed. I was only a child, and had been listening to pop radio for a little more than a year, but it’s weird what I remember: when I heard the opening verse, Vee alone setting up the scenario, then jumping into the title hook, it was the first time I thought, “That’s going to be number one.” It made the top spot on WABC in September, then was knocked out by “Runaround Sue.” Good year.

a certain mr. toussaint


How much music can truthfully be described as “rollicking”? Music that’s light and nimble, that jumps and flows and makes you smile? Allen Toussaint did many things brilliantly, conveyed sentiment (“All These Things”) and sadness (“It’s Raining”), but I can’t think of anyone’s music that is so flat-out happy, and it was all in the melodic touch: think of his early instrumentals like “Java” and “Whipped Cream,” how insidiously catchy they are, or the novelty songs he wrote for Ernie K-Doe and Lee Dorsey. There aren’t too many people who could get away with something as unadorned as “Happiness,” or “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues),” but there was something unaffected about his songs and nimble about his piano playing. It may seem flip to compare the composer of “Working In A Coal Mine” and “Mother-in-Law” to Duke Ellington, but I saw them both live, and here was something so casually confident about both of them, the way they sat down to play as though it were the most natural thing in the world, like all they needed to do was graze the keys lightly and these tunes would spring to life.

As was famously said about Ellington, Toussaint was beyond category; his roots were in New Orleans R&B and jazz, he was in that line with Professor Longhair and James Booker, but he took that premise, as a writer and producer, into soul, funk, pop, and it’s crazy how many of his early tunes became essential pieces of the pop repertoire despite never being “hits.” Benny Spellman’s 1962 single of “Lipstick Traces (On A Cigarette)” got only as high as #80, and The O’Jays’ version three years later barely snuck into the top 50, but somehow the song’s been covered and covered in the decades since (Delbert McClinton, The Amazing Rhythm Aces, Ringo Starr, Alex Chilton). The song is fundamentally a sad one, a memory song about a faded relationship (it draws on the opening line of the standard “These Foolish Things”: “A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces”), but it has that slinky New Orleans bounce, something that lightly swings.

Spellman’s “Fortune Teller,” “Lipstick Traces”’s Minit B-side, never made the chart at all, and Ernie K-Doe’s “A Certain Girl,” the flip side of “I Cried My Last Tear” on the same label, was a low-charting single, and yet in the first years of the British Invasion, those Toussaint songs kept resurfacing. Where did those groups find them? I never heard “A Certain Girl” until it turned up on the U.S. debut albums by The Yardbirds (For Your Love) and Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders (The Game of Love). “A Certain Girl” is certainly a goofy thing: K-Doe is sweet on a chick, and can’t stop talking about how smitten he is, but he’s stuck in the friend zone and is determined not to tell this friends her name until he’s closed the deal. Again, we have a pretty sad situation here, but the song itself is in denial; this unrequited crush sounds like fun, sort of. It was one of those obscure U.S. R&B songs that the U.K. groups just snatched away: there are takes on it by The Paramounts (who morphed into Procol Harum) and The First Gear, but it’s The Yardbirds version, with Eric Clapton still on board, that nailed it down, at least until it was adopted by Warren Zevon a decade and a half later.

“Fortune Teller”’s U.K. afterlife was even more remarkable: did everyone who bought the “Lipstick Traces” 45 (London 9570) in England turn the single over and decide to record it? The song is like a Toussaint variation on Leiber & Stoller’s “Love Potion No. 9”: the singer (Spellman originally) is in romantic distress and seeks non-psychiatric counsel, in this case in the form of a psychic who tells him to chill out, that the next girl who arrives will be The One. He has no luck and, wanting an explanation, he goes back the next day to the fortune teller, their eyes meet, and happy ending: marriage, and free fortunes. It’s a cute song, and all those British groups found it simple enough to toss into their repertoires: The Merseybeats, Cliff Bennett and The Rebel Rousers, Tony Jackson & The Vibrations, The Hollies, Herman’s Hermits. It’s on The Rolling Stones’ Got Live If You Want It U.S. LP (overdubbed to sound like a concert version) and on The Who’s deluxe Live at Leeds (no overdubs required). Jump-cut to 2007, when it showed up, slowed-down and sinuous, on Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s Raising Sand, and then jump further ahead to Elvis Costello, doing it live with Mr. Toussaint.

When Toussaint passed away not long ago, so many suggested playlists popped up online, testimony to his astonishing influence, versions of “What Do You Want The Girl To Do,” “Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky,” “Get Out Of My Life Woman,” “Freedom For The Stallion,” “Southern Nights,” “Holy Cow.” Some of those songs got recreated at last night’s Toussaint tribute at City Winery orchestrated by Jon Batiste and some didn’t: the show was too brief to get it all in, but any gig that starts with a rousing take on “Whipped Cream” and ends with “Yes We Can Can” is fine with me. One song I really thought should’ve been included was “A Certain Girl,” because when you have a Toussaint crowd and you don’t ask it to sing “What’s her name??” and respond with “I can’t tell ya!!,” that’s what you call a missed opportunity.