Sunday, March 28, 2010

Beauty in the Broken Bits

Last night at dinner a friend asks if I’ve been caught up in the whole Alex Chilton thing. (She hasn’t.) Well, yes. But also, no. Sad news, dead at 59, days before another of the big shows Big Star had played since reforming 17 years ago. And yet maybe because obscurity and failure were built into his myth so deeply — when he surfaced in my record buying life in 1985 with an EP of brilliantly sloppy r&b, the story (repeated so, so many times since) was that the former teen star (number one hit at 16) had turned 35 washing dishes in New Orleans — or maybe because the guy had spent so long making light out of darkness, it seemed somehow . . . unsurprising.

Then I read Rob Sheffield’s memoriam online and its personal connection to a music that seemed to survive obscurity only through personal connections opened a door. I went to the wall of vinyl and was surprised how many Chilton records I had there (the first Tav Falco Panther Burns album, where he’s credited as “LX Chilton,” sounds shockingly good at this distance, its ramshackle mix of neo-primitive hep-cat and cocktail melody validated by decades of thrift-store explorations). A clip of Chilton on MTV News in 1985 features him walking through a New Orleans cemetery (see what I mean about unsurprising?), playing acoustic guitar and singing songs old and new. For forty seconds, he strums out a weird and wonderful oddity about life being love when you’re lost inside a neon rainbow (that’d be the city at night lit up by neon, of course). Turns out it’s a Box Tops song on side two an old Rhino anthology I don’t even remember buying, total crap and total genius.

Last thoughts: For two weeks I’ve had nothing but Big Star on the iPod. The Beatles are always invoked, but #1 Record always sounded more like a pop Zeppelin to me — the boogie, the acoustic guitars rambling over the hills and far away, the overdriven vocals. That first album opens with Chilton feeling like he’s dying (the cause: bad romance), which is followed by Chris Bell talking about how having God by his side will help him beat the strong odds he’s facing. (Maybe not: He wrapped his car around a telephone pole in 1978 at 27, leaving behind an unfinished album full of devastating heartbreak and god worship. Says Wikipedia: “He struggled with depression … stemming partly from his repressed homosexuality and dependence on heroin, both of which he tried to deal with through a strong belief in Christianity.”)

That’s pretty much the whole story right there, in two songs. Bell never got to finish telling it. Chilton broke it apart at the spine, shuffled the pages, never lost the beat, but never changed his tune. There was joy in his music, yet more often than not he turned feelings of dislocation into records that offered grace, warmth and comfort in surprising ways. Beauty in the broken bits — like another Memphis cohort, photographer William Eggleston — that’s what he found. That’s what he gave us.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Queen for a Day

Happy Birthday to Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, who is 68 today. Probably no other rock & roll act with the exception of Elvis Presley has made such an artistic impression without writing his or her own material. Many of Aretha's greatest covers have been forgotten, since oldies stations tend to play only the original recordings, but she hit the Top Forty with all the following remakes, which are more famous in their original versions:

"I Say a Little Prayer" (1968)
"You Send Me" (1968) (Top Forty R&B)
"The Weight" (1969)
"Tracks of My Tears (1969) (Top Forty R&B)
"Eleanor Rigby" (1969)
"You're All I Need to Get By" (1971)
"Bridge Over Troubled Water" (1971)
"Spanish Harlem" (1971)
"Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" (1974) (Top Forty R&B)
"What a Fool Believes" (1980) (Top Forty R&B)
"Jumpin' Jack Flash" (1986)
"Everyday People" (1991) (Top Forty R&B)

"Respect," which is probably Aretha's signature song, is a cover as well, of course, having been done originally by the great Otis Redding, who wrote it. Aretha didn't change the lyrics, but since it's about a breadwinner, it took on a whole different tinge in her hands:

I'm about to give you all of my money
And all I'm askin' in return, honey
Is to give me my profits
When you get home

It's unusual, in the mid-Sixties, for a woman to sing about bringing home the bacon and frying it up in the pan, but the situation is by no means unheard of. Marvin Gaye's mother, for one, was the one in his household who made all the money, while his father was an unemployed, churchless preachin' man. Songs about working women were few and far between in 1967, but there were plenty of women who could identify with Aretha's take.

Aretha didn't need to write her own songs to make these kinds of personal statements. She's a personal statement in and of herself. Long live the Queen.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Bottle of Fur

OK, until someone proves otherwise, I'm going to assume that Boston drummer Sib Hashian (in the center, below) is the hairiest man in rock & roll. That fro has reached its theoretical limit, and the beard isn't far behind.

In second place is terrible Canadian crooner Gino Vannelli, who probably could have claimed the prize if he'd just gone ahead and grown a beard:

Conversely, Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes is making a brave go of it, but that chest looks suspiciously pasty:

Your move, Devendra Banhart.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Big Daddy Cane

I bought a little plastic bottle of Odwalla Strawberry C Monster fruit juice today, and one of the primary ingredients listed on the label was "evaporated cane juice." Now, I am certainly not a botanist, but it seems to me, if you take some cane juice, and evaporate all the liquid out of it, what you'd be left with is.... sugar. Amiright?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Some Kind of Lonely Clown

Hey, are you guys reading the ever-fascinating Find a Death web site? Because if you're not, you should be. Not only does it collect groovy little details concerning the method by which famous people pass (on the morning he died, Ike Turner smoked some crack - AT THE AGE OF SEVENTY-SIX! Party on, Ike!), but also neat little nuggets on how they lived, such as the fact that Richard Deacon, Paul Lynde and Nancy Walker were a trio of drinking buddies. Or that Eve Plumb, when asked which episode of The Brady Bunch was her favorite, said, "The last one." (And she's not even dead!) There's a great story about Robert "Eldin" Pastorelli of Murphy Brown. And on and on.

Chief deathmeister Scott Michaels recently updated the Karen Carpenter entry, which includes the fact that her big brother Richard once bought two apartment buildings in Orange County. He named the buildings Close to You and Only Just Begun. No, really:

How fabulous is that? Richard doesn't own the buildings any longer, but they still bear the names of those songs. I wonder if there's a building here in Colorado called Elusive Butterfly.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

End of Days

In the Acrostic in this morning's New York Times Magazine, a clue asks for the title of the Chuck Berry song containing the line "Hail, hail, rock and roll." That's easy, I thought; I just downloaded a box set of Chuck Berry onto my iTunes, so I've been listening to a lot of Chuck lately. It's "School Day."

But wait - that doesn't fit. I went to check the album I had downloaded, and sure enough, the song is called "School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell)." According to Billboard, the song is called simply "School Day," without the parenthetical (it went to Number Three in 1957). That's how Whitburn reports it. Near as I can tell, some rendition of the singular version was the original title:

At some point along the line, though, the title seems to have changed to "School Days." Wikipedia seems to think that's the official title, with the alternate being "School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell)." Plus, see here:

And I hope it's not too much of a spoiler, but the New York Times Magazine seems to think the title is "School Days" as well. Exactly when and why the title changed, that I could not tell you.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


It's a pretty simple question: Which songs have made the Top Forty in three different decades? Casey Kasem isn't around to answer these kinds of things any more, but I'm happy to handle this for you.

First of all, I found two songs that made the Top Forty in four different decades. These are:

"Everlasting Love"
Robert Knight, 1967
Carl Carlton, 1974
Rex Smith and Rachel Sweet, 1981
Gloria Estefan, 1995

"The Way You Do the Things You Do"
Temptations, 1964
Rita Coolidge, 1978
Hall and Oates, 1985 (in a medley with "My Girl")
UB40, 1990

I wouldn't have thought there were any four-decade hits, but then again, I also wouldn't have thought there were this many three-decade hits, either. And this list may not be complete.

I'm going to put my notes up here, in case you're "too busy" to read the whole list. It's funny how many names repeat here; Cheap Trick, Lloyd Price and Bette Midler all show up twice, as does Bill Black's Combo. Also, I made the executive decision to not count re-released versions of the same song, but that didn't prevent "Stand by Me" from making the list.

The newest song on the list is "Baby, I Love Your Way," which first charted in 1976. The biggest hit, however you want to measure it, is "The Loco-Motion," which went to Number One in the 1960s, Number One in the 1970s, and Number Three in the 1980s. Here's my full list:

"Ain't That a Shame"
Fats Domino, 1955
Pat Boone, 1955
Four Seasons, 1963
Cheap Trick, 1979

"All I Have to Do Is Dream"
Everly Brothers, 1958
Richard Chamberlain, 1963
Glen Campbell and Bobbie Gentry, 1970

"Baby, I Love Your Way"
Peter Frampton, 1976
Will to Power (medley with "Free Bird"), 1988
Big Mountain, 1994

"Can't Help Falling in Love"
Elvis Presley, 1962
Corey Hart, 1987
UB40, 1993

Sam Cooke, 1961
Johnny Nash, 1970
Tony Orlando and Dawn, 1976
The Spinners, 1980 (medley with "I've Loved You for a Long Time")

"Daddy's Home"
Shep and the Limelites, 1961
Jermaine Jackson, 1973
Cliff Richard, 1982

"Deep Purple"
Billy Ward and His Dominoes, 1957
Nino Tempo and April Stevens, 1963
Donny and Marie Osmond, 1976

"Do You Want to Dance"
Bobby Freeman, 1958
Beach Boys, 1965
Bette Midler, 1973

"Don't Be Cruel"
Elvis Presley, 1956
Bill Black's Combo, 1960
Cheap Trick, 1988

"Hearts of Stone"
Fontane Sisters, 1955
The Charms, 1955
Bill Black's Combo, 1961
Blue Ridge Rangers, 1973

"Hey There Lonely Girl (Boy)"
Ruby and the Romantics, 1963
Eddie Holman, 1970
Robert John, 1980

"I Only Want to Be With You"
Dusty Springfield, 1964
Bay City Rollers, 1976
Samantha Fox, 1989

"It's All in the Game"
Tommy Edwards, 1958
Cliff Richard, 1964
The Four Tops, 1970

"Last Kiss"
J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers, 1964
Wednesday, 1974
Pearl Jam, 1999

"Little Bitty Pretty One"
Thurston Harris, 1957
Clyde McPhatter, 1962
Jackson 5, 1972

"The Loco-Motion"
Little Eva, 1962
Grand Funk, 1974
Kylie Minogue, 1988

Johnny Mathis, 1959
Lloyd Price, 1963
Ray Stevens, 1975

"Stagger Lee"
Lloyd Price, 1959
Wilson Pickett, 1967
Tommy Roe, 1971

"Stand by Me"
Ben E. King, 1961
Spyder Turner, 1967
John Lennon, 1975
Mickey Gilley, 1980
Ben E. King, 1986

Kyu Sakamoto, 1963
A Taste of Honey, 1981
4 P.M., 1995

"Summertime Blues"
Eddie Cochran, 1958
Blue Cheer, 1968
The Who, 1970

Domenico Modugno, 1958
Dean Martin, 1958
Bobby Rydell, 1960
Al Martino, 1975

"When a Man Loves a Woman"
Percy Sledge, 1966
Bette Midler, 1980
Michael Bolton, 1991

"Wild World"
Cat Stevens, 1971
Maxi Priest, 1989
Mr. Big, 1993

"Without Love (There Is Nothing)"
Clyde McPhatter, 1957
Ray Charles, 1963
Tom Jones, 1970

"You're All I Need to Get By"
Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, 1968
Aretha Franklin, 1971
Tony Orlando and Dawn, 1975
Method Man with Mary J. Blige, 1995

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Golden Age of Radio

From 1982 to 2004, Dick Clark of $10,000 Pyramid fame produced and hosted a four-hour oldies radio show called Rock, Roll and Remember, spinning dusties and tossing off facts like a less-organized but more factual Casey Kasem. In 2004, Clark had a stroke, ending the series' run, and his speech has been noticeably impaired ever since, although he still lays claim to being America's only 80-year-old teenager. If you've seen his brave but unfortunate post-stroke appearances on New Year's Rockin' Eve since then, you know he doesn't have the voice he once did.

But Rock, Roll & Remember is still out there in syndication, including on my local oldies station, where it airs every Sunday. I keep listening for some indication that these are very old shows - not so much a clarification like on the old American Top Fortys in syndication, which makes it clear these are "classic" re-airings, but an error of fact introduced by the passage of time. The release date for the Walker Brothers' "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" is not likely to change, but Dick might mention that Ray Charles is still going strong or something. I did hear him refer once to the late George Harrison, but the Dark Horse is more than likely to remain dead.

More than that, though, I find it disquieting to hear these shows, passed off as current programming, when I know Dick Clark isn't physically capable of doing this. Radio is supposed to be more immediate than that, isn't it? I watched All the President's Men on TV the other night, and it didn't bother me at all that Jason Robards is dead. That's fiction, though; radio is nonfiction.

Someday, Dick Clark is going to die, as much as we all wish he wouldn't. Will Rock, Roll and Remember keep airing after that? Come to think of it, I bet they could edit and repackage some old episodes of the Paul Harvey News, and no one would know the difference. The perfidy of Congressional Democrats is an eternal topic.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Day in the Life

The book Get Back: The Unauthorized Chronicle of the Beatles 'Let It Be' Disaster, which I just finished reading, does us the service of watching and/or listening to all the existing tapes of the Beatles' aborted rehearsals for their aborted live show in early 1969. The authors see it as their mandate to report on every movement and utterance the Fab Four (and occasionally Fab Five) make, which makes for some odd transitions, such as when the Beatles decide to go up to the rooftop as the climax of the monthlong rehearsals. Since the decision to do that was reached off-tape, the authors see no need to tell us how it came about.

But since they report on every single thing recorded by the film and taping crews, you get a lot of neat stuff that's left out of other, more important books. It's not just the musical stuff, like the way the boys would warm up every morning by running through half-remembered Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins tunes, or the way Paul comes up with "Get Back" just by noodling around at the piano one day, waiting for the others to arrive at the studio. You also get such humanizing detail as the fact that every night, the Beatles would go home from the studio and watch TV. And since there weren't very many channels in London back then, they'd usually have watched the same thing and have a chat about it - Laugh-In appears to have been a popular favorite.

There's a nice moment when Paul passes out tangerines to all his mates, and the boys have lunch brought in at one point; John has a macrobiotic offering of brown rice and vegetables. If I'm not mistaken, John was also a heroin addict at this point in his life. Now, I'm not much of a nutritionist, but I suspect a lunch of brown rice, vegetables and heroin isn't really much healthier than a representative lunch of mine - say a half-dozen White Castles and no heroin.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Rubber Soul

I have in my possession an album called Soul Tribute to the Beatles, which is quite possibly the best album of its kind in existence. Most tribute albums end up scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of artists willing to throw away covers of other people's songs, so you end up with lots of Polvo and Redd Kross and people like that. But this record compiles already-recorded versions of some of the greatest pop songs ever written, as done by some of the greatest R&B singers of all time.

Here's the powerhouse lineup:

"Hey Jude," by Wilson Pickett This is the recording that made Duane Allman a household name, at least in those households that paid attention to session guitarists.

"Lady Madonna," by Fats Domino Fitting, since McCartney wrote this in tribute to Fats, and the Beatles loved his cover version.

"Yesterday," by Marvin Gaye "Why did she have to go? I don't know, hey I don't know, the little girl wouldn't say."

"Let It Be," by Aretha Franklin This didn't make the Top Forty, but her cover of "Eleanor Rigby" did, in late 1969.

"Come Together," by Ike & Tina Turner Tina changed "Hold you in his armchair/You can feel his disease" to "Hold you in his arms till you can feel his disease." Hers is better, isn't it?

"Day Tripper," Otis Redding From the legendary Complete and Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul. Uses the word "y'all" much more than the Beatles ever did.

"And I Love Him," by Esther Phillips Esther liked this so much she made it the title track of her 1965 LP.

"I Want to Hold Your Hand," by Al Green This somewhat radical reworking was Reverend Al's first single. If he tried this on Beatles Rock Band, he would fail.

"Can't Buy Me Love," The Supremes The Supremes cut a whole album's worth of British Invasion hits, A Bit of Liverpool, in October 1964. This is easily the weakest cut on the LP under discussion.

"Michelle," by the Four Tops Just between you and me, the Tops have no idea how to pronounce "tres bien ensemble." They did a lot of great pop-song covers, including "Walk Away Renee," "If I Were a Carpenter," and "MacArthur Park."

"Got to Get You Into My Life," by Earth, Wind & Fire A Top Ten hit in 1978, from the regrettable screen adaptation of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

"Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," by Natalie Cole A live version from 1978. It's hard to imagine a world in which Natalie Cole would see fit to present her concert audiences with an extended cover of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," but I suspect it's a better world than the one in which we live.