Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Bird Lives: On Stanley Crouch’s Kansas City Lightning

From roughly the end of World War II to the publication of On The Road, there was no more emulated musician in the world of jazz than Charlie "Bird" Parker. His ability to live on the edge of utter disaster while dishing up exhilaratingly lyrical, fantastically complex solos night after night became the stuff of legend. The undisputed master of Bebop, which was at one time the hippest, fastest, most complex version of jazz one could hear. There’s a reason why jazz is often regarded as one of the most challenging musical genres around. Playing it well means that one must invite and then master a certain kind of aesthetic risk. A jazz musician is, in a sense, a kind of acrobat. We listen, whether we realize it or not, for how well they can handle themselves as they maneuver high up on the thinnest of wires, balancing order with chaos, with the whole band cooking behind them and the crowd watching as they try to claim a freedom both emotional and aesthetic that exists for, maybe, a few minutes at a time, night after night, until they drop. For an impressively long stretch of time, Parker was the finest -- and most precarious -- acrobat in town. Everybody, it seems, wanted to either play with him or play like him. The young Miles Davis, barely out of his teens and never one to run with the herd, dropped out of his first year at Julliard to be his sideman, making a brilliant series of recordings as a full-fledged member of his band. Writers and artists from Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin to the Beats to Julio Cortázar to Jean-Michel Basquiat have paid homage to the manic brilliance of Parker’s art and life. Usually it‘s wise to try to separate an artist‘s personal peccadilloes from the meaning of their aesthetic achievement. The story of Charlie Parker, however, is pretty much always going to be entwined with the legend and for good reason. I submit that the kind of place Parker holds within jazz tradition is a little like what you would get if you mixed Beethoven with Jimi Hendrix. He was a game changer. After him, the deluge. This might sound a bit hyperbolic, but there were few musicians at the time who could match the mercurial exuberance of his playing with the intricate technical understanding he brought to the saxophone every time he raised it to his lips. It should go without saying that Charlie Parker played the blues as few have before or since. In his autobiography, Miles Davis told how he and his bandmates spent the better part of a week preparing for a major concert, meticulously figuring out the set list and what key to play each song in, anxiety building over just where exactly Bird was and whether or not he’d make it to the show on time. Finally somebody found him, cleaned him up, and shoved him out into the performance without anything much in the way of a rehearsal. He played every single song in the proper key, of course, while adding a few of his own, piling chords and harmonic interventions with improvisational flights of fancy, utterly stunning everyone who tried to follow along. The really scary part is that this wasn’t an isolated incident -- this kind of thing seemed to happen all the time. Small wonder that Parker’s music led to such an obsession with his enigmatic life. In some ways, Stanley Crouch is the perfect candidate to write Bird’s biography. He’s been one of the boys on the beat of American culture for quite some time, with a Macarthur grant, several provocative essay collections, and a fine novel to his credit. Even better, Crouch has been one of the precious few public intellectuals to valorize jazz and insist and demonstrate how jazz can be seen as not only one of the pure products of America gone crazy but also its historic pulse, its backbeat, a trope that swings. One of the themes Crouch emphasizes is reflected in a quote from the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch: “the civilization of an epoch is its myth in action.” This insight is useful not only in giving a background for Parker’s eventual triumph and decline but also in showing how his music promised a certain kind of freedom one might have felt at a certain time and place, if you were willing to let it take you over. It’s the kind of democratic promise implicit in what they used to call American classical music, with collective improvisation and individual expression put in constant interplay, an offspring of the blues that reckoned with classical structures, music made for and by people who, with some notable exceptions, never found satisfaction anywhere else. It’s for the best that Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker is the first volume of two. Some reviewers have complained about the novelistic, occasionally montage-like approach Crouch takes in telling the story of Parker‘s youth and adolescence. It’s been suggested that Crouch is padding his material or being self-indulgent. I see the point, but I would argue that this stylistic choice isn’t even Crouch’s fault. He’s definitely done his homework; his research began when he interviewed Parker’s first wife and some of his first musical collaborators back in the early '80s. Depending on the accessibility of the subject, any biographer is going to be limited in some ways by the availability of the material and sometimes there just isn’t much information on hand to properly fill in the gaps. Crouch’s biography ends when Parker is barely out of his teens, and he was not born into particularly noteworthy circumstances, so it’s understandable that biographical detail would be a bit sketchy. Instead of describing young Charlie’s endless hours in the woodshed (as if that were even possible), up to 15 hours a day, practicing over and over till he was fluent in every key, Crouch elaborates on things like Jack Johnson’s heroic stature within the black community, the effect of the Great Depression on urban life, and the freewheeling atmosphere of Kansas City in the late '30s, brimming to the top with open corruption and all-night dancing. Even as a jazz fan, I didn’t really have much background on the music and lore of Kansas City before reading Crouch’s bio and it’s a treat to have had the scene come alive. No true record of American music would be complete without it. And quite a world it is -- Kansas City jazz at the time, still essentially based in blues and swing, shines through as intensely competitive and made up largely on the fly, hashed out in cutting contests while serenading the revelry of amoral politicians, gangsters, and anybody who had the requisite scratch and wanted to live his own particular version of the high life. In this case, the political machine of “Boss Tom“ Pendergast (who was also the original political patron of a mild-mannered war hero named Harry Truman) provided most of the social cover and performance spaces. Crouch helps the reader get to know musicians like the flamboyant and tenacious bandleader Billy Eckstine, as well as Erroll Garner and Chu Berry, each of who deserve a rediscovery in their own right and whose contributions to American music are deeply underrated, aside from specialists. Their mentorship also helped define and hone Parker’s incipient style; aside from his relentless practicing, he learned most of his skill on the bandstand, in the thick of it all. We hear of the musicians on hand providing a soundtrack to after-hours glimpses of American decadence, where “men in dresses were seen performing oral sex on each other...Women had sex with other women. Some puffed cigars with their vaginas; some had sex with animals.” The point being that for a young jazzman on the make to see firsthand “the difference between what went on in the conventional world and what happened when people chose to reject the laws of polite society.” Jazz has always been a subversive, carnal music, viscerally at odds with the mainstream by being, for one thing, the house music of choice for American bohemia and the well-heeled alike for decades. It offered refuge and an open chance to strut your stuff for anyone who was willing to shed the inhibitions of the segregated, hostile, and haughtily dismissive world outside the club and the touring circuit. The appeal of Kansas City Lightning is not so much that Crouch has unearthed shocking revelations about the mind and soul of Charlie Parker, but that he vividly brings to life Charlie Parker’s world as much as his music or his personality. We know that his father, Charles Parker Sr., was a charismatic Pullman car porter with a knack for the nimble work who eventually succumbed to alcoholism without apparently trying to fight it very hard. His mother, Addie, was a strong and fiercely independent woman with some Native American blood who, it’s generally agreed, deeply spoiled her only son and tolerated his well-known remoteness and emotional isolation. It’s interesting to read of Parker’s upbringing in light of his eventual hedonistic free-for-all once he hit the big time in New York. Impulse control wasn’t exactly his thing, to put it mildly. Crouch is hauntingly dead-on when he says of Parker that “the saxophone was the only thing that gave him exactly what he wanted and he gave in return.” This hits hardest when one reads about the teenage courtship of his first wife, Rebecca, who couldn’t help falling for the gifted mimic and cocky mama’s boy and who bore him a son of his own when they were both in their mid-teens. After playing stimulant-filled, all-night jam sessions, honing his skills and getting his first experience of the nightlife, another form of self-indulgence, everyday struggles might have seemed intolerably unsatisfying to someone as ambitious and self-centered as Parker was. What it can’t quite justify, however, is his almost complete indifference when it came to being any kind of father or husband. Crouch’s novelistic approach builds subtle drama out of telling the story from Rebecca Parker’s confused and rightfully suspicious mindset when it came to matters concerning her husband. There are hints of young Parker coming and going, never explaining himself, out all night doing god-knows-what with god-knows-who. The excuses pile up, bills go unpaid, months of dread pass by. We feel for her; we know how this particular story is going to end. There’s something telling about the way Parker seems to come most alive in escape, always one step ahead, one beat faster, a blur of motion at the edge of the narrative frame. Parker was a gifted mimic since childhood and, Crouch explains, when he went to the movies he could do a medley of imitations of the actors, mannerisms and all, to the delight of his friends. As a boy, Parker would wait in front of the local library for his mother and read books about religion and science fiction, stories of exotic places in the imagination. Everything he did seems tinged with a kind of manic energy as a means for some kind of escape. He’s always dashing off to practice for hours in the woodshed or make a quick buck at a gig with a good-times crowd or score the morphine he’d started injecting for the broken ribs he’d suffered in a car accident that had also killed his best friend. It’s not a pretty picture, by any means, once we get the full story of ducked responsibilities, selfishness, and growing addiction. And at this point, the future musical genius isn’t even out of his teens but he and we know full well that as far as he’s concerned, his real life will begin elsewhere. The narrative leaves off at the point before Parker makes it big in New York, on the cusp of realizing his artistic breakthrough. Crouch illustrates vividly how difficult it was for someone with Parker’s background and slim prospects to even try to make the journey. We learn the tricks of the hobo trade, as any black musician heading north to find gigs pays dues amid circumstances that would make Tom Joad break into a cold sweat. We hear of how to keep box car doors from slamming shut, in order to keep from suffocating or freezing to death, and how to slake your thirst with the morning dew collected from the back of a leaf. Once Parker made it to the Big Apple, there was only more struggle ahead. We read of Parker walking endlessly through the freezing streets trying to keep warm with his paper-thin suit fraying at the edges, his shoes almost flapping, on the hunt for a pot of chili and a place to crash for the night. Sometimes I worry that jazz has been ruined for the 21st century by caricatures of zoot suits and hirsute beatniks snapping away over black coffee, or has been relegated to the pathetic limbo of aural wallpaper at cocktail parties. It’s a shame that jazz doesn’t get the same kind of attention and mainstream buzz it used to. Telling the stories of the people who shaped it would be as good a way as any to bring a new audience. One of the benefits of Crouch’s novelistic style is that, by the end of the book, the reader wants more. After meeting his family and getting the nitty gritty details of his apprenticeship, we want the rising action of Charlie Parker’s story, once he conquers New York and starts jamming with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Thelonious Monk. and the aforementioned Miles and changes American music forever. In Crouch’s hands, the phrase that used to be ubiquitous around New York rings true: Bird lives. I hope I’m not the only one out there who is waiting with bated breath for Crouch’s next volume to see this Bird take flight.
Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

I Found a Way to Enter: Diving Into Writing

It’s like a heartbeat, the opening bars of Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor” – the first song in the Canadian band’s new project, the one that sets the tone and the refrain: “It’s a reflection.” It’s the thirteenth song if you count backwards, the bridge between the two halves of the double album. It’s the mirror. My pulse quickens. I am alive. “We fell in love, alone on a stage / In the reflective age.” I am not alone here. I wait for it, the rhyme in the second stanza between the French and the English. This is the sublime: “Entre la nuit, la nuit et l'aurore. / Entre les royaumes, des vivants et des morts. / If this is heaven / I don't know what it's for / If I can't find you there / I don't care” (Between the night, the night and the dawn. / Between the realms, of the living and the dead). I drink the pairing of “morts” and “for” – I am giddily outside myself and deep in the beauty of the bond, if for a moment, between the two languages, the dead (“morts”) and the preposition of the future (“for”) – which in the fifth stanza transforms into the exquisite almost overlap of “morts” and “more.” I am free of the anxiety of not writing. I love that this song is about trying to find “a way to enter” – to find a portal, a connector – which one can read as the passage to the Underworld that Orpheus seeks in order to attempt his rescue of Eurydice (there are two tracks in Reflektor that make this theme clear, one named for each ancient Greek figure). I also read the song as seeking the throughway for creativity, for getting on with the act of making something. But “Reflektor” does not promise safe passage: “I thought, I found a way to enter/...I thought, I found the connector.” But I didn’t. Even the false promise is assuring. I want to look for my entry onto the page, into a line, an image, a something. I am afraid. I am in the middle of a rough descent, choppy in the air and in need of a pocket of smooth, a glide. The seven-plus-minute “Reflektor” has become a ritual these days. Blast it louder and maybe the portal will appear. Will I dive in? I am dancing in the backyard under the Brazilian pepper tree, the almost full moon keeping me company. But my movements are small, so I go inside, into the room where I work at my computer, and I dance around the desk – I turn up the music and it pulses through the wires into my ears – I am still too timid to blast the notes into the nakedness of night, or morning, the way I did when I was a teenager in my attic bedroom, or in college away from family and anything familiar. My new roommates knew what the Bjork loop meant. A litany of song to lift another day. Then I moved onto Radiohead. Then the Chilean hip hop band Tiro de Gracia and their first album Ser Humano (human being/to be human). Many writers, those attempting to write, like to talk about what helps them get in the mood, the zone. The organization of the objects on the desk, a particular pen or writing machine, the ritual reading of a specific text, a stack of books at the ready, music playing in the background. Maybe it’s not working and everything must be reversed: no music, no books, no wireless connection, no flesh and blood people nearby, no. I am pulled in by pairings, duets, correspondences. Elizabeth Bishop’s letters to Robert Lowell and his replies, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando doubled as male and female, Maria Bethânia’s covers of Vinicius de Moraes’s songs in the album Que falta você me faz (how I miss you, or, more literally, what an absence you do to me). But beware! The guide to the portal of creativity could be unreliable, even dangerous. When I started to read the work of Clarice Lispector, I took in one book after another, after another – I became immersed in the modes of her tragic heroines, their epiphanies seismic, but rarely conduits to change. I needed an epiphany in my own life. Lispector, and Bishop, hurled me to Brazil – that was the portal, for a time. Then a Brazilian scholar of Fernando Pessoa warned me that those who study the Portuguese poet put themselves at risk of uncanny episodes, darkness that cannot be returned, not least of all in The Book of Disquiet. Home again, Wallace Stevens hypnotized me out of writing. James Merrill and his Ouija board made me nervous. I mishear lyrics and when I realize that I am wrong, I keep singing them that way, an incantation gone slant, a twist that might do the trick. “Reflektor” begins: “Trapped in a prism, in a prism of light.” Over and over I sing: “Trapped in a prison, in a prison of love.” Is there a difference? My favorite misunderstanding lies in the middle of the song, the repeated refrain: “Just a reflection, of a reflection / Of a reflection, of a reflection, of a reflection / Will I see you on the other side? (Just a Reflektor) / We all got things to hide (Just a Reflektor).” And always, always, I sing in the spirit of how the phrase sounds when its iterations are layered on top of one another: “Just a reflection of of affection / of of affection / of of affection.” I am consistent, at least, in the theme of my misreading. What kind of love is this? Who is the “you” sung to? “If this is heaven / I need something more / Just a place to be alone / 'Cause you're my home.” If it is Orpheus, then Eurydice is the recipient of song; or, vice versa. If I am the one to sing, then it’s the person or the thing, the book or the phrase, that will help me find the portal, dare me to dive in, to begin. In “Then Ends Where Now Begins” – an essay in the stunning collection Eros the Bittersweet – Anne Carson writes: “For Sokrates, the moment when eros begins is a glimpse of the immortal ‘beginning’ that is a soul.” I am still here, now sitting at my desk, earbuds pressed into my ears. I have listened to the song too many times to say. Nothing yet. Let’s play again. I stand up to dance. I remember my Chinese teacher who made us do jumping jacks while counting to eight in unison. That’s what I remember, always eight, infinity: 一 二 三 四 五 六 七 八 She also told us that we had to be friends with our Chinese characters, spend time with them, talk to them, love them. Only then would they love us back, be there for us when we might need them instead of hiding in the silence. I begin a series of jumping jacks and they morph quickly, by number three, into something else all together. I shake my fists, I stretch my arms, I pull at the air above me. It seems that I am here now, I have fallen, I have entered. “Will I see you on the other side?”
In Memoriam, Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Lou Reed, Sonic Contrarian

The first time I ever heard “Walk on the Wild Side” it freaked me out. It was on one of those dark cold New England winter mornings that makes the universe come to a standstill. I must have been about twelve or thirteen. I remember frost chalked across the windows. I was up before sunrise for some odd reason, and the routine blare of the classic rock on my radio had ominously stopped for a few moments and there was this silence in the air. I was already sitting up in my bed before Herbie Flowers’s immortal bass melody suddenly dropped, cooler than cool, and out of nowhere came a voice that held my complete attention without apparently being bothered to try. Lou’s nonchalant, matter-of-fact vocals, in that melodic mumble he’d always managed to pull off when he wasn‘t shouting or trying to croon, emerged over the guitar and suddenly there was an emcee in the room, drawing back the curtain onto a hidden, seemingly black and white noir world of hustlers, hitchhiking transvestites, the A-poll-o with the go-go-go and someone named Holly in the back room giving head but keeping hers...The really peculiar part of this, at least for me, was that none of it was offered with any kind of comment or explanation. What would be sensationalistic or pushed into the realm of the surreal in other songwriter’s hands was offered without comment, explanation or big conclusion. Here‘s the wild side, kid, the poker face of the voice and the music seemed to say, take or leave it. It wasn’t until high school that I heard about the Velvet Underground and this mysterious fellow who wore black sunglasses all the time and hung out with Andy Warhol. I remember asking about this apparently infamous band at my local independent record store and having the clerk explain that I really couldn’t just get one record by these guys, you really had to get them all. I ended up buying the box set for about twenty bucks in one of those ridiculous Columbia House deals they used to have and took it home, unwrapping it like a lost scroll. It might have been “Heroin” that hooked me. Or it could have been the part where they drag the chair across the floor and drop a clattering stack of dinner plates in the middle of “European Son” or the neon-lights-under-glass vibe of “Femme Fatale” that won my heart, I couldn't decide either then or now.  And that’s before I delved into White Light/ White Heat or the spiritual anguish and throbbing eroticism of the eponymous third record, or the sparkling charisma of “Loaded,” which would have gone platinum were there any justice in the world. I remember realizing that I was probably the only person in my small town who had spent his entire afternoon listening to “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” Before I knew it, I was the proud owner of the t-shirt - black, of course - with the first record’s cover emblazoned on the front. Mercifully, it was a long time until I found out that people called me banana boy. There’s just no question that the Velvets, and Lou’s decades of solo work, changed the game for anybody who met them even halfway on their own terms. It wasn’t just an aesthetic choice, either. Most of the personal tributes I’ve seen don’t just talk about how great a musician Lou Reed was but how his fine, fine music literally changed their lives. It’s not only because he stayed true to his vision, no question about that, but because, well, between thought and expression lies a lifetime. His tastes were varied enough to incorporate pretty much everything - literature, film, garage rock, the classical avant-garde, doo-wop, love, drugs, sex, death, and wearing sunglasses at night while sporting a rather undeniable mullet. Somehow, in the way that only truly great artists can manage, Lou Reed managed to tell the world exactly how and where to go fuck itself while assimilating as many aspects of it as he possibly could. Lou loomed large, he contained multitudes. His songs could be as expansive and lyrically obscure as they were blunt and almost minimalist. He was a legendarily hostile interview subject who had the sincerity to name one of his less-remembered solo records “Growing Up in Public,” a lover of free jazz and Dion and the Belmonts, a connoisseur of epic orgiastic rave-ups who could also remix an entire set of already painfully naked and honest songs down to the point where his vocals dominated the mix and still sounded like a quivering whisper coming from a locked room. The same guy wrote “I’m Waiting For the Man” and “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Sweet Jane” and “Perfect Day“ and “Walk On the Wild Side.” By his own admission, he did Lou Reed better than anybody. It might be the New York thing coming out, but I’ve always noticed that everybody, fans and enemies alike, always called him Lou. Of how many other certifiable rock stars could this be said? He had a knack for finding mentors, too. As an undergraduate at Syracuse, he became one of the student acolytes of Delmore Schwartz, a now-overlooked poet whose appetite for conversation and booze was matched only by his obsessive passion for the life of the mind. He wrote the introductory short story for the Partisan Review in 1937, at the ripe old age of twenty-three, an absolute line-by-line masterpiece entitled “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” Read it today and see exactly how every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Saul Bellow wrote his Pulitzer-winning “Humbolt’s Gift” about him and his maniacal mentorship and called him “a Mozart of conversation.” John Berryman lamented the loss of the days when they would walk through Harvard “warm with gossip” and dedicated poems to his “sacred memory.” As legend has it, if you spent any time at all with Schwartz, you would hear him give spellbinding readings of Joyce and Yeats and Shakespeare and whatever else struck his fancy until he burned himself out, as he eventually did. Lou was understandably quite devoted to him and would refer to him years after he died as “the first great man I ever met.” One thing Schwartz told Lou was that whatever he did, he needed to write truly and honestly and never betray himself. If he didn’t, he would haunt him from beyond the grave. And haunt him he did, if the tender “My House” from 1982’s deeply confessional The Blue Mask is any indication. And then there’s Andy Warhol, who evidently asked for little else out of life but to listen and watch. Lou himself also said that Delmore Schwartz was the smartest man he’d ever met, until he met Andy. They called him Drella, a mix of Cinderella and Dracula, the monosyllabic son of Pittsburgh and Tiffany’s who made soup cans and atomic bombs and Elizabeth Taylor equally glamorous. Andy saw them as a nothing bar band in the Village and realized he needed a house band for his factory of beautiful freaks. This was beyond spectacle. Don’t forget that the people mentioned in those songs, the Chelsea girls and smack heads and lonely debutants, were based on real people. Think about it, how many other groups essentially started playing as the rhythm section of an entire improvisational art project, literally providing the soundtrack to the glowing, pulsating film above their heads? Then you’ve got the whip dancers and Nico the singing Teutonic goth statue and the strobe lights and the cellophane balloons and speed. And why not flip it around and imagine if, say, Jackson Pollock had a house band? They made a point of touring in places where they were hated. Seriously, who does that? Conflict of all kinds - internal and external, alone in the dark night of the soul and in the bright lights of NYC, as cosmopolitan a place as you could ask for and whose avatar he was for a time - wasn’t just his theme, it was his muse. It takes a certain kind of genius to make a classic like “Transformer,” revive a sluggish solo career in the process, bask in the glow of due appreciation from the likes of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, and then unleash forty five minutes of incomprehensible noise entitled Metal Machine Music and admit that, yes, no sentient being has actually been able to listen to it all the way through (much less its maker) while closing his label-demanded liner notes with the boast that “my week beats your year.” He was probably right, too. Less than a year later, he shape-shifted into a 50s radio deejay of the mind playing at the prom and makes Coney Island Baby, as accessible and sentimental a record as he ever made. Only he could have brought out the burnished despair in the almost melodramatically desolate Berlin and turned off more or less his entire fan base while he was at it, only to revive it thirty years later in a triumphant live show and concert film and see it listed among the greatest records of its time. For my money, his greatest solo accomplishment is the eleven minute 1978 epic “Street Hassle” precisely because it does so many things at once and yet remains sui generis, a Lou Reed joint if there ever was one. Surging cellos accompany a three movement structure that fuses pretty much everything between ecstasy and agony while maintaining some indefinable, yearning balance between hopefulness and fatalism, degradation and exaltation, bad luck and Bruce Springsteen. For better or worse, Lou made a career out of being a sonic contrarian. He challenged you as a listener because he challenged himself as a performer. If you got it, you got it, and if you let it get under your skin it stayed for a lifetime. Andy Warhol told him that however many songs he did, he needed to write more, because the most important thing in life was work. Some of his best records, in different phases of his career, were with the great John Cale and apparently each man repeatedly swore they’d never deal with the bastard ever again. Warhol himself once called him a “rat.” Lester Bangs did some of his best interviews while insistently provoking and antagonizing him, and wrote some of the most gloriously obsessive music criticism of all time about what his music did to his imagination. As Thurston Moore put it, Lou Reed’s music provided you access to fantasies you never even knew existed. And not just the dirty ones, either. I strongly doubt that Jonathan Richman had so much as smoked a cigarette when he listened to “Sister Ray” and found his life was saved by rock 'n' roll. And if sexual fluidity was your bag, then Lou was your, er, man. He wrote openly about sadomasochism and gender bending before anybody else in rock 'n' roll had the nerve to, and did indeed seem to practice what he preached. It has been suggested that Lou either coined or at least popularized the term “coming out of the closet” in Transformer’s bouncy little ditty “Make Up.” He was perfectly happy to squire his transperson companion Rachel around for several years. At the end of Coney Island Baby he dedicates one of his most poignant and romantic songs to her, in a voice that gets me every single time. For what it’s worth, I don’t think the fact that he married different women and lived happily ever after with Laurie Anderson invalidates or undermines this at all. The disturbing fact that he underwent electroshock treatment for “homosexual inclinations” as a teenager and wrote the harrowing “Kill Your Sons” about the experience is proof enough that the rock 'n' roll animal was no dilettante or poseur when it came to what used to be called alternative lifestyles. I met him once. I understand it’s a little presumptuous (not to mention name-droppy) to use this term given the nature of the interaction we had, but there it is. I think I was a sophomore in college, which would make it late 2000. He gave a reading at a Barnes & Noble in Union Square because, as we all know, you never know what you’re gonna find there. Pretty big crowd, mostly middle aged suburban guys. I came late and missed the reading but I lined up with everyone else to get the new edition of his collected lyrics signed. I came prepared - I had a copy of his book and a copy of Delmore Schwartz’s selected poems for him to sign. I had some ridiculous idea that this would impress him or something. One was for me, the other was for my best friend. The booksellers handed out large post-it notes so you could write what you wanted your dedication to be. They stuck out of the side of the book, under the cover. I saw one older guy ahead of me with a sticky note that said “Hey Bob! Take a walk on the wild side!” I looked away and tried not to kill myself. As I approached the great man’s table, he was in the process of calmly flipping someone off. His back was turned and he was smirking bemusedly at someone on the staff who’d made some kind of comment or dropped something. I plunked the books down in front of him with an idiotic flourish and asked him if he’d do a dedication. He noticed the books, changed his smirk to a scowl, and fumbled through them, as his scowl turned into a scrawl. For the collected lyrics, he flipped to the title page and wrote above the title in big black letters HELLO and, beneath it, LU. I have always treasured the compliment. After the crowd thinned out I went into the corner and tore out the two pages he’d signed, stuffed them in my pocket and put the books back on the shelf. To this day I’m not exactly sure if I was channeling Tony Soprano or Dead Poet’s Society but I throw myself to the tender mercies of booksellers everywhere when I say that it was my walk on the wild side, and it was all right. Bonus Lou Reed YouTube Playlist: "I'm Waiting for the Man" "All Tomorrow's Parties" "The Gift" "Candy Says" "Pale Blue Eyes" "Stephanie Says" "New Age" "Rock n Roll" "Satellite of Love" "Make Up" "Berlin" "Caroline Says II" "Coney Island Baby" "My House" "Street Hassle" "Dirty Boulevard" "Magic and Loss" "Set the Twilight Reeling" "Sweet Jane" (Live)
Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Motown: The Musical vs. the Literary

Like millions of native Detroiters who remember the city's glory years of Motown music, muscle cars, and the MC5, I was stung though hardly surprised by the recent news that my hometown has filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. After decades of relentless decline, the unthinkable has become undeniable: the Motor City is dead broke. Fortunately, a tonic was close at hand. A few miles from my New York apartment, a jukebox musical has been playing to packed and enthusiastic houses at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway. So I slipped into my blue silk suit and headed for Times Square, determined to relive my teenage years and, for a couple of hours, forget that my proud hometown has been brought to its knees. Motown: The Musical did what it was supposed to do. It made the world go away for a little while by peppering the audience with non-stop fragments of more than 50 unforgettable Motown songs, performed by an energetic cast and crisp orchestra. The costumes and sets were lavish and ingenious. Many in the audience sang along to lyrics they'd memorized half a century ago and will never forget. When a pint-size Michael Jackson (played by Raymond Luke Jr.) came spinning onto the stage, the place erupted. Nostalgia doesn't get much more slickly packaged than this. But the cast – indeed, the musical itself – faces an impossible task. There is simply no way to recreate the magic that poured out of the cramped recording studio known as "the snakepit" in an unassuming house on Detroit's West Grand Boulevard, with a sign out front that shouted HITSVILLE U.S.A. That outpouring came to be known as "the Motown sound," something everyone recognizes but no one can quite explain. The best a show like Motown: The Musical can hope for is to be is a passable imitation. Which seemed good enough for most members of the audience, who left the theater wearing smiles. But as I stepped out into the round-the-clock blaze of Times Square, I felt like I had just gorged on cotton candy – stuffed but somehow still hungry. Musicals are not supposed to be history lessons, of course, but this one's story was little more than a string that tied the song fragments together. I realized that anyone who wants to know what made Motown great and what killed Motown should not go to Broadway. They should turn to books, to the large and growing body of literature inspired by the Motown story – biographies, histories, autobiographies, memoirs, picture books, post-mortems. Together this body of Motown Lit lays out a tragedy every bit as fascinating, maddening, and depressing as the tragedy of Detroit itself. 1. To Be Loved The "book" for Motown: The Musical – that is, the show's narrative thread – was written by Motown founder Berry Gordy, based on his 1994 autobiography To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown. Gordy's autobiography does a workmanlike job of laying out his life story. The grandson of a freed Georgia slave, he was born into middle-class respectability in Detroit in 1929, performed poorly in school, tried his hand as a boxer, an auto assembly line worker, and a salesman before turning to songwriting. After scoring some hits with Jackie Wilson, he borrowed $800 from his family's trust fund to start his own recording and music publishing company in 1959, calling it Motown. Over the next three decades, Gordy and his phenomenal stable of talent rewrote the history of American pop music, thanks in no small part to the label's uncanny ability to sell black music to white kids like me. Gordy's book is no better or worse than most celebrity autobiographies, which tend to be shameless exercises in image management. He dismisses the persistent rumor that Motown was controlled by the Mob. He claims he was fair to his employees while admitting he made some mistakes. To his credit he is able to laugh at himself, confessing that he couldn't get it up the first time he went to bed with Diana Ross, who was the love of his life and the source of so many of the problems that would besiege the company. The biggest of those problems was that Gordy and his family had a choke-hold on the company's singers, musicians, songwriters, and producers. The company controlled everything. It had its own in-house management company, the artists were locked into parsimonious long-term contracts, they were forbidden from taking moonlighting gigs on the side, there was even a charm school to teach performers how to walk, sit, dress, conduct press interviews, and move onstage (no closing your eyes when singing, no finger snapping, no spreading your legs or sticking out your buttocks; such things might offend the vital white audience). Gordy owned the copyrights to all the songs, which was the real source of his long-term wealth. For these reasons Gordy has been accused, fairly, of being paternalistic. The man was either ruthless or shrewd, depending on your point of view, but there's no arguing that he worshipped the bottom line above all else, which eventually led to a drumbeat of accusations that he was cheating his artists. In his book, Gordy flatly denies the charges: The reason this accusation bothered me so much was I had made every effort to ensure that people would be paid everything due them. Not only was it the right thing to do, it was good business. What was due them was clearly defined in our contracts. When our royalty rates were questioned, I checked it out and reconfirmed that (my sister) Esther had originally patterned our contracts after United Artists'... The systems...made sure that every cent of an artist's earnings was paid to them and that all expenses charged to them – like session costs – were authorized and correct. This has a strong whiff of lawyerese and it is, as we'll see, disingenuous at best. When Motown artists started getting wise, they demanded more money, sued to get out of their contracts, or simply jumped to more generous record companies. These defections inspired a jeremiad from Gordy that made him sound like the owner of a professional sports franchise who'd grown accustomed to owning athletes for life and woke up one morning to the cold reality of free agency: In these changing times, the value of a proven artist was skyrocketing into the multimillions. And when a label decided to acquire someone else's artist, one who was already under contract, something once frowned on as unethical, it was now tolerated. I had a problem with that. I had a problem anteing up more every time an artist we had developed got a better offer. To me it became values versus value. I began to realize there was a major conflict within me between my values and the artists' value. Perhaps stubbornly, I would not always pay what it would take to get them to stay. That might have been a mistake. To get to the truth about how Motown treated its artists – and how that treatment helped destroy the company – you need to read on. 2. Where Did Our Love Go? In 1985, two years after Motown celebrated its 25th birthday with a splashy television special, the seasoned music journalist Nelson George published one of the best books ever written about Gordy and his creation, Where Did Our Love Go?: The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound. Among the book's many virtues is the way it places Motown in the historical context of American pop music and black enterprise. It also makes a compelling case, through dogged reporting, that Gordy did indeed have many of his artists, especially the young ones, locked into onerous contracts. Nelson has a keen ear and he recaptures the many elements that contributed to the magic of a Motown recording session, not only the drums, electric guitars and bass, horns and strings, but also the hand claps, foot stomps, cowbells, tambourines, all of it in service to those sublime vocals. Perhaps best of all, the book gives long-overdue praise to the people who were the key to the Motown sound – the house band known as the Funk Brothers, who Gordy refused to credit on album covers until Marvin Gaye's smash 1971 concept album, What's Going On. "Nobody outside Detroit knew all the players by name," George writes, "but they may have been the best band in America." The band's bassist, James Jamerson, was arguably the greatest musician to come out of Motown. (For an expanded treatment of the Funk Brothers' story, check out the 2002 documentary Standing In the Shadows of Motown, which opens by stating the astonishing fact that this unknown band played on more #1 hits than the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Elvis combined.) Martha Reeves claims she was the first Motown artist to complain about miniscule royalties, and in time she had plenty of company. In 1964 Mary Wells successfully sued to get out of her original contract, which she had signed when she was 17. After the Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go?" hit #1 that year, George writes, "Berry quickly had them sign a new contract, with visions of Mary Wells no doubt dancing in his head. In August, (the Supremes) signed a document Motown labeled the 'Second Recording Agreement.'  One can't say that they renegotiated their contract, since none of the three was represented by a lawyer. Motown had them sign the deal that Motown wanted, and what Motown wanted was total control with a minimum of risk – in fact, this contract would become a model for all future Motown contracts." In her memoir, Dreamgirl, Mary Wilson of the Supremes noted that the group received a 3 percent royalty on record sales, which was split evenly among the three members.  If a record sold 1 million copies, Wilson wrote, each singer would receive a check for $5,000. Where did the other $485,000 in profits go? It wasn't that everyone was broke. People were living large, dressing well, getting high. Cadillacs were gridlocked in front of Hitsville, and David Ruffin of the Temptations went so far as to have his upholstered with mink. But there was a growing suspicion that the artists were generating a lot more money than any of them were seeing. No one felt more suspicious than the prolific songwriting and producing team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland, or H-D-H, who had penned "Mickey's Monkey," "Heat Wave," "Jimmy Mack," "Baby Love," "Where Did Our Love Go?," "How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You," "Standing in the Shadows of Love," "Bernadette," and many other timeless hits. "H-D-H's proficiency won them awards, respect, and money," George writes. "They should have been happy. Yet bubbling under the surface was the uneasy feeling that, considering all the capital they were generating, all the acts they had helped make marketable live commodities...and the musical identity they had given Motown, maybe they should have been given a bigger piece." When that bigger piece wasn't forthcoming, H-D-H mimicked a practice common to Detroit's automobile assembly lines. They went into a production slowdown. Gordy, furious, sued them for $4 million for breach of contract in 1968. H-D-H counter-sued for $22 million. It was war. And to quote the #1 Edwin Starr song: What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. It was, in fact, the beginning of the end of Motown. 3. Music, Money, Sex, Power, and Litigation The paperwork from the drawn-out legal war between Motown and H-D-H now fills more than 20 file cabinets in the basement of the Wayne County Court in Detroit. Other litigation fills more file cabinets to bursting, both in Detroit and at the Los Angeles Superior Court. These staggering facts are among hundreds that enliven Gerald Posner's superb 2002 book with an unfortunately generic title and subtitle, Motown: Music, Money, Sex, and Power. Posner states that these archives of the company's many legal battles were the single most important source of information for his book because "few relationships between the label and its artists, producers, songwriters, and executives did not eventually end up in court." It wasn't just H-D-H; it was also Mary Wells, Martha Reeves, Gladys Knight, Teena Marie, the Jackson 5, the Supremes, and many others. But the H-D-H suit was the longest and costliest, in terms of both money and good will. Though Gordy largely prevailed in the settlement, Posner described the battle as a "major mistake." Posner's research, even more rigorous than George's, leaves little doubt about just how insidious Motown's paternalism turned out to be. Posner illustrates, chapter and verse, that the boilerplate Motown contracts were, contrary to Gordy's claims, onerous even by the standards of an industry long known for treating its creative artists like chattel. And it went much deeper than low royalty payments. As Posner writes: Gordy insisted to anyone who would listen that his original contracts...were on par with standard deals in the industry... Gordy invariably ignored the fact that his contracts made his artists responsible for some costs that record companies themselves might otherwise pick up, including studio recording time, the musicians, the charm-school teachers, the chaperones, all touring costs, and even the costumes and makeup for live shows. Gordy prided himself on giving cash advances to acts that needed it, but of course they were guaranteed by future royalties and also came with a profitable interest rate... Further, since (Motown) managed all the artists, there was an apparent conflict of interest of which few artists were aware...  Motown's management banked the money for its acts and even paid their taxes, with many of the artists never seeing their own tax returns. As Otis Williams of the Temptations put it, "The tack Berry took with his artists when it came to money was an extension of his attitude toward them in general: he believed he knew what was best for us." But it went beyond paternalism and dubious business practices. Gordy never made a secret of his infatuation with Diana Ross or his desire, long before they became lovers, to make her the biggest pop star on the planet. The preferential treatment he gave her – and the resentment it fostered among other Motown acts – proved to be a major drag on morale. His decision to move the company from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972, a rebuke that many Detroiters of a certain age will never forgive, can be tied directly to Gordy's desire to break into the movies, that is, to make Diana Ross a movie star. These misguided moves finished what the H-D-H legal war had begun. 4. Ready For a Brand New Beat The newest addition to Motown Lit is Mark Kurlanksky's Ready for a Brand New Beat: How "Dancing in the Street" Became the Anthem for a Changing America. As its subtitle suggests, Kurlanksy sets out to make a case that the 1964 dance hit by Martha and the Vandellas became the battle cry for the various movements that began to convulse American society in the mid-1960s, the pushes for civil rights, women's rights, black power, environmentalism, an end to the Vietnam War. I'm sorry. Much as I love the song "Dancing in the Streets," I'm afraid I can't buy Kurlansky's grandiose claim about its impact. To make matters worse, this book is mostly canned third-hand history, and it has more padding than the back seat of a Buick Roadmaster. As Kurlansky and others have pointed out, Gordy and his company were only marginally involved in various political movements of the '60s. While Detroit was burning – the 1967 riot that left 43 dead was centered a few blocks from Hitsville – the factory kept cranking out boy-meets-girl songs like "You're My Everything" and "I Was Made to Love Her." Martha Reeves was hardly a social activist. When she and the Vandellas recorded "Dancing in the Street," she was a cloistered Detroit woman in her early twenties who had recently been working as a secretary at Motown. Even Kurlansky admits she was "genuinely apolitical." When it came to politics, Reeves said, "I wasn't involved." Mary Wells coined an expression for the cocoon that Hitsville became: she called it "the Motown bubble." I'm innately suspicious of writers who claim that a particular year, or decade, or song, or event was emblematic of a change in the course of human history – unless it's something as momentous as the dropping of the atom bomb or the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Kurlanksky obviously doesn't share my suspicions. In addition to Ready for a Brand New Beat, he wrote a book called 1968: The Year That Rocked the World. (A writer of catholic interests, he has also written books about Hank Greenberg, cod, salt, oysters and Clarence Birdseye.) You can hear Kurlansky straining for effect when he tries to make the case that a light-hearted party song became, despite its innocent intentions, the anthem for urban rioters and other malcontents at a pivotal moment in American history: By the end of the summer of 1964, the entire tone of the 1960s had changed: America was almost a different country, and "Dancing in the Street," born on the cusp, one of the few Motown songs that was not about love and heart-ache, was going to make the transition to the new and much more harsh America. This is specious, to say the least, but Kurlansky outdoes himself with this: The spark that set off the Detroit riots was on Twelfth Street, an almost entirely black neighborhood where the Funk Brothers often worked out passages for the next day's tracks at the Chit Chat Lounge. Though no survivors can recall, it would be a great irony if the celebrated track for "Dancing in the Street" had been worked out at the Chit Chat, where the Detroit riot that tied itself to the song began. The club was beloved in the neighborhood, and when Twelfth Street was leveled by violence, the Chit Chat was untouched. I've read those sentences half a dozen times and I still can't fathom why this would be a great irony. Or how a riot ties itself to a song. The "Motown bubble" didn't burst until the late '60s and early '70s, after Gordy had begun the shift to Los Angeles and the company released such songs as "War," "What's Going On," "Cloud Nine," "Love Child," "Psychedelic Shack," and "Ball of Confusion." These songs exhibited a timeliness and relevance to larger social issues that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier. As great as the songs were, they were too little, too late. Gordy was focusing on movies – that is, on turning Diana Ross into a movie star – and Motown was sliding toward a reduced status as "just another record company," as Nelson George put it. By 1988 Gordy was forced by mounting debts to sell the company. He got $61 million – and retained control of the cash cow publishing company. Not bad for an original investment of $800. But it could have been so much sweeter. This little nostalgia trip I went on, triggered by Detroit's bankruptcy, then the Broadway musical, a second viewing of Standing In the Shadows of Motown, and these various books – it's been a strange journey. I played all my scratchy old Motown LPs as I read through these books, and the music brought back an avalanche of memories. At first the memories made me want to dance, the way I used to dance at Motown Revues in Detroit's Fox Theatre and at raucous throwdowns at the Grande Ballroom. Then, as the memories grew darker, they made me want to holler. In the end, the twinned tragedies of Motown and Detroit make me want to cry.
Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

The Song I Could Not Stop Singing: On “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”

When I was 10 years old, there was a song I could not stop singing, and that I very much wished that I could. It was “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” by The Beatles, the third track on the first side of their 1969 album, Abbey Road. Though the melody of the song has a catchiness that made it attractive to me, the lyric has a darkness that made it dreadful. The melody wears short trousers and the lyric wears long. And that lyric, about a murderer, messed me up. There came upon me, not rationally but massively, the conviction that if I continued to sing this song then my parents would die. And yet I could not stop singing it. There I would be, walking blithely through the house, or walking blithely across the garden, and then realize that for the last few seconds, I had, yet again, been singing of Maxwell Edison and his homicidal hammer, and a great dread would invade me, because it meant, this singing, the removal of my parents from the world. This was a laughable idea, of course. But that an idea is laughable isn’t much of a bar to its presence in the human mind, is only patchily the occasion of laughter. I, certainly, wasn’t doing any laughing. The song became, for me, a thing of unmanning malignity, a breach through which the worst of all facts could have at me, through which the thoughts I most wanted kept out crashed in. I knew it, this song, as an ambush. It was a thing by which, at any time of day, I could be undone. It is not amongst the most loved of The Beatles’ songs, "Maxwell’s Silver Hammer." Ian MacDonald, in Revolution in the Head, his celebrated disquisition on The Beatles’ discography, describes this McCartney composition as a "ghastly miscalculation" and as "sniggering nonsense" and claims it was a song that Lennon despised. The tale of a murderous medical student, it has a jarringly jaunty tune -- a Trojan tune that smuggled the horrific into my head. The song I discovered when investigating my parents’ record collection, a discovery as unfortunate as that of some cursed amulet that brings woe to its owner, but of which the owner can never be rid. But Abbey Road is, despite "Maxwell," the Beatles album that means the most to me, perhaps, in part, because I knew it when I was young, and it has the additional import, therefore, of a lost thing found, or of a thing delivered from afar. Whatever makes a rock from the Moon matter more than a rock from your garden -- that ingredient is present, I find, in the things first known. But the album, of course, requires no biographical happenstance on the part of the listener to have meaning. Good things are to be found therein. Including the moment, during the second side’s long medley, when the briskness of "Polythene Pam" gives way to the lengthier phrasing of "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window," and the moment of changed pace feels like the moment a glider is freed from the plane that pulls it, the brutish motoring left behind in a rapturous banishing of racket and rush. Yet for all that is good on the album, it is what is bad that remains, for me, most potent. There was a long period of my life when even the sight of the third track’s title on the back of the sleeve was a cause of disquiet. And though I know that I will have to listen to the track again for the writing of this essay, I am now at the end of the second paragraph and have yet to get the listening done. It was not the only piece of music, this, that snared me with its melody and disturbed me with its words. There was also Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, which, I think, was the first record I ever owned. The five- or six-year-old me sent away a certain number of labels from bottles of Ribena, and received, in return, a copy of Peter and the Wolf on flexi-disc. I found it magically pretty, this piece of music. It seemed to me extraordinary that something so pretty could exist, and be in my possession. Here was gorgeousness caught, as baffling a capture as a snatched sunbeam or a phantom filmed. And yet I found listening to it an ordeal. Because the narration was about a cat, a bird, and a duck being hunted by a wolf, and, in the case of the duck, eaten. Which I did not like. The chasing of the cat made me afraid, I remember, for my own cat, who seemed to me very meaningful, and, as I listened to the narration, very vulnerable. The narration, as it happens, has a cushioned conclusion, pulls back, at the last, from an adult frankness about death -- Peter persuades the hunters not to kill the wolf but to take it to the zoo, and as the wolf is led away we hear the duck it has eaten quacking from inside its stomach. This is mortality fashioned with a child in mind, mortality tailored to the tender. Nevertheless, the tale bothered me, and quite soon the mortality proved more worrying than the melody was alluring, and I put the record safely to one side. But with "Maxwell’s Silver Hammer," the record could not be put safely to one side. Because I couldn’t stop singing it. They are hardly strangers to each other, music and compulsion. The phenomenon of the earworm, of the tune that refuses to leave you be, has been much remarked. Oliver Sacks, in Musicophilia, his book on neurological oddities relating to music, describes people prey for long periods to the irresistible mental repetition of a tune, and quotes a correspondent who suggests that the cause lies in our hunter-gatherer past, when learning the sounds of wildlife through repetition would have been of assistance to survival. With me, the repetition was not mental but vocal. I was given to unbidden singing, sometimes to the annoyance and amusement of those around me, and can remember the day, in my early 20s, when I managed to leave such singing behind, my work colleagues giggling as I repeatedly started to sing and then, on each occasion, immediately stopped and apologized, and, over a couple of hours, brought the automatism finally to a halt. It’s no accident that music, which can so unevictably inhabit us, is often depicted as magic. In the fairy tale, "Roland," the title character rids himself of a witch by playing her a magic tune on his fiddle. The witch cannot stop dancing and eventually dances herself to death. In "The Wonderful Musician," a lonely fiddler seeks to attract a companion with his playing, and a woodcutter, hearing this playing, leaves his work in spite of himself and stands and listens to the fiddler as if enchanted. Sometimes what music means is that our will is neither here nor there, and my will, when I was 10, was exactly that. I was in the grip of a ghastly enchantment, and did not have what was necessary to get myself free of that grip. So yes, what I thought, when I was 10, was this: that as a consequence of my singing "Maxwell’s Silver Hammer" -- my monstrously involuntary singing of "Maxwell’s Silver Hammer" -- my parents would die. But not immediately. In three years’ time. When I would be 13 and they would be 42. There seemed to me a fatal conjunction in those numbers. Because both were inauspicious. Thirteen traditionally so. And 42 because that was the age at which Denis, the man who lived opposite, had died. Denis had two children who were much the same age as my sister and me. And yet, somehow, this hadn’t stopped him dying. Denis’s death, I now suspect, had much to do with my troubles. If he could die, I had realized, then my parents could too. I would have known this already, of course. But his death gave the knowledge heft. That those who were the land you lived in could be lost to you, that the ones where all the warmth was could be removed -- Denis’s death had flicked a switch and made this knowledge live. And my anxiety about it, I am speculating, infected my singing of the song. There was a reason, I think, why it was this particular song that was a problem, and not another. It was because my singing of this song seemed a transgression. It was about a murderer bringing a hammer down upon people’s heads. It was not a song, I felt, that I should have been singing. Yet sing it I did. I was a 10-year-old much given to toeing the line, and yet there I was, guilty, unarrestably, of transgression. And bad things are born of transgression. Just as Adam and Eve, in their consumption of the forbidden fruit, had brought mortality upon the race, so was I, in my singing of a forbidden song, bringing mortality upon my mother and father. I was doing wrong and the horrible would follow. And yet I couldn’t stop. I could not. Here we are now, six paragraphs in, and still I haven’t steeled myself to listen again to the song. I have, over the years, listened to it on several occasions, and without any significant psychological collapse. But I am finding the notion onerous now. Not because I fear a resumption of the compulsion. Or because I fear that to hear it will spell my parents’ end. I am long rid of such thinking, and will walk under the unluckiest of ladders with wild abandon. Nevertheless, I was in the habit of hating it, and the habit has made a partial return, though I know that there is nothing there to hate. That a prejudice has been debunked can be of strangely little impediment to the persistence of that prejudice. I used to recoil, for example, at the thought of watching a western, and decided to watch half a dozen to confront my prejudice and make larger the likeable world. And I did, indeed, find that I liked them, and felt the prejudice depart. And then, as time passed and I went a while without watching another, I felt the prejudice grow back, in peculiar heedlessness of experience. "Maxwell’s Silver Hammer" is not, I know, a thing of nasty magic, yet an odor of nasty magic remains. Yes, there that odor is. Some art we have to be feeling strong to consume, and some art we have to be feeling weak. But that there exists a piece of music that has a strange power over me -- I do not entirely dislike this idea. I am apt to be grateful for the strange, for that to which my thinking might gainfully go. And that it’s possible to create a piece of art that plays havoc with a human -- this idea can do gingering things to a writer, as can all evidence that art is not a thing inert. That it might be possible to summon something of similar import, a sentence or a story that does not pass traceless through the soul -- this makes one hasten to the waiting page far wider of pupil. It is right, I think, to talk now of the Yorkshire Ripper. For the Yorkshire Ripper, I suspect, may be pertinent. I was, as a child, particularly given to nocturnal fears, and there was a period when I would spend large parts of each night leaning out of bed in stricken vigilance, monitoring the stairs for the Yorkshire Ripper’s ascent. The face of this murderous inadequate I knew from the front page of my parents’ paper, which meant that he was, by this time, safely in custody. And in his long and sanguinary career he had shown no interest whatsoever in butchering small boys. But my fear of him was a thing to which the facts had no access. And it wasn’t only for myself that I feared. My parents’ room stood between mine and the top of the stairs, and I would weigh in my mind whether this was a cause of comfort or concern, whether my parents provided a bulwark against the awful or would in fact be the first things the awful fell upon. I wasn’t clear what powers my parents had. It was possible murderers had more. I once, when young, raised the question of my parents dying with my mother, and she laughed, and declared that that was a long, long time away and wasn’t something I had to worry about. But when I was 10, I was worried. At the thought of being alone in the world, and with less strength than the world required. When I think, now, of "Maxwell’s Silver Hammer," I think also of the Yorkshire Ripper. They overlap in my mind. Let me look up the dates. I have looked up the dates. They match. I was bedevilled by the one at the same time as I was bedevilled by the other. But my fears about both petered out. By the time I was 13 and my parents were 42 and the fatal conjunction of the numbers was in place, my compulsive singing of the song had ceased, along with my fear, and the year reached its end without the augured apocalypse coming to pass. Now, I suppose, I must behave like an adult, and listen again to the song. That plaguing perkiness. That bright-eyed blight. I am not without hopes that this will induce in me some enormous meltdown so as to give the final paragraph some pizzazz. If the listening were to coincide with terrible news about my parents, what weight the final paragraph would have. The writing of that last sentence caused me some unease. I felt the errancy in it imperilling my parents. I felt the infraction in it doing something damning. It does not confine itself entirely to one’s childhood, does it, the childish mind. But here we go then. Here we go. I am back and I am, of course, unharrowed. Nothing terrible was triggered. None of the odious potency remained. "When the fear yields," wrote Saul Bellow, in Henderson the Rain King, "a beauty is disclosed in its place." It would be pushing it, perhaps, to categorize "Maxwell’s Silver Hammer" as a thing of beauty. But I did not dislike it. There was McCartney’s light voice taking a pleasant melody over the oompah underpinnings, and the lyric that fell so foul on my infant self fell utterly fallow on my adult. There was nothing there to induce upheaval. The only element of the track that caught on me was to be found during the final verse, a very quiet organ line that I have never noticed before, a thing muted enough to be mysterious, lying there beneath the more obvious elements of the orchestration, and the hiddenness of which passed, to my ears, for profundity. I want to listen to that again. Instead, however, I have just listened to a version of the song by Jessica Mitford, a larky version in which she pays but scant obeisance to the tune, her elderly voice plonking down on the notes with jolly imprecision, her ineptitude so blithe that one starts to think it admirable. The original, though far less slapdash, is larky too. There is a point, during the verse in which Maxwell dispatches his teacher, when McCartney has to conquer an inclination to laugh. And the bassline, in its amiability, would suit a humorous tuba. A tuba wasn’t used. But it’s a song -- and I realize how grave a statement this is -- that teeters on the brink of using a tuba. He has said, McCartney, that for him the song embodies the fact that bad things can happen out of the blue. That isn’t a reading of the song I would ever have arrived at. Because it isn’t about terrible things happening to one person. It’s about one person doing terrible things. Nevertheless, when I was 10, the song did, for me, embody the worst blow a person could know, and I think perhaps I experienced the light treatment of dark matters not as an attempt to draw the sting of such matters ­­-- or whatever it is one is doing when one deals depthlessly with death -- but as a violation I would be punished for being privy to. I am not so strange, I suspect, in having once thought a tune taboo, in having thought myself the font of the horrible, my trespasses the murderers of my parents. Magical thinking, I have just read, in a culpably tardy session with a search engine, is particularly common amongst children, especially with regard to death. They are apt to blame themselves for a death, to think that what’s at the root of it is their wretchedness. In the film, MirrorMask, written by Neil Gaiman, which has just shown, with kindly timing, on TV, the young protagonist, while throwing an adolescent tantrum, wishes her mother dead, and then, when her mother falls ill soon after, thinks her wish the culprit. That the meaningful are mortal -- a large part of human oddness is born of this fact. Wherever the meaningful are mortal, oddness will follow. As prevention or as explanation or as solace. Though guilt about the dead, of course, isn’t always groundless. They die, the loved, and then there is guilt. Because we will not always have lived up to the fact that they mattered. But the situation, when I was 10, was this -- I was a child faced with an adult fact, and childishness followed. Perhaps, buried somewhere within my thinking, was the notion that if my parents’ dying was down to me, then I could, by being good, make them immortal. To think death the consequence of sin is to think death defeatable. Because we can stop being sinful. But I, for a long while, couldn’t stop. My tongue would make the decision to sing, and there I would be, up to my neck in the terrible. I think about singing it now, the opening line of the song. But I only think about it. No, that won’t do. I shall sing it. I have sung it. But quietly. I didn’t exactly belt the thing out.
Reviews, Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

The Kid Is Alright: On Teddy Wayne’s The Love Song of Jonny Valentine

1. J: What r u doing tomorrow night want to go to a concert with me at Madison sq garden? Me: No plans as of yet. Quite possibly? What concert? J: One Direction. Don’t laugh! But I can’t think of a person who I would have a better time at a 15 year old Brit boy band concert with. Think of it as anthropological study!! Me: OH MY GOD YES. Me: NOT BEING IRONIC. A few weeks before Christmas, a friend invited me to the One Direction concert at Madison Square Garden. There were two distinct groups in attendance that evening: fans, ages 7-17, with a little wiggle room on either side, glowing and jumping and shrieking their hearts out, even when there was no one was onstage; and chaperones, ages 35-55ish, fondly exasperated and slapping down $9.50 -- the price of a Bud Lite -- on concessions counters across the arena with an extreme sense of purpose. For me, it was all a little surreal, I guess. I am 28 years old. But wait -- it’s probably best to pause straight away and unabashedly reject any lingering embarrassment over attending the concert: I sang along, I danced a bit, and I cheered enthusiastically, though I found myself physically incapable of matching the testing-the-limits-of-the-human-hearing-range screams of the assembled crowd. The boys put on a good show. For the uninitiated, One Direction (1D!!!) are a classic Simon Cowell product, a quintet of teenagers packaged together from individual auditions for The X Factor in 2010, and in the past two years, through the force of collective charisma, catchy pop singles, frankly spectacular hair, and a skillful marketing juggernaut, they’ve become the most successful group in the world. When I asked that same friend whether I needed to explain the band here, she wrote in a Facebook message, “haha no. they are the five most beautiful brits on earth.” It’s both short-sighted and a little curmudgeonly to sit at a One Direction concert and marvel at the "kids these days," though I’ll admit that when I was ages 7-17, I’m pretty sure that I never felt like any of my peers were literally about to fall to pieces over the Backstreet Boys, or Hanson -- though maybe I just had the wrong friends. The night at MSG felt more like the Ed Sullivan Show with laser lights and balloons full of confetti -- girls cast in black and white, trembling and jittery and ear-splittingly loud as they swooned over The Beatles, The Stones, and all those bands that never made it past 1964. One Direction plays up their Britishness -- their new album cover involves a top hat, a bow tie, and one boy hoisting another up onto a red telephone box -- which partly feels like a nod to (or, perhaps, a pale imitation of) the transatlantic sensations of half a century ago. Mick Jagger recently drew those comparisons himself: after watching a One Direction concert on television, he said, “It reminded me very much of our early concerts, when we were pushed around among the audience and we would kind of float. [T]hey were like, floating above the audience, and they looked like, really distinctly uncomfortable...It was a very funny moment, because it was very similar to the things we’ve been through.” So it was fitting, then, that just a week prior, I’d gotten drawn into watching Crossfire Hurricane, the new HBO-produced documentary about The Rolling Stones. It was entertaining all along, but for me, one segment was extraordinary: half an hour in, after a rapid-fire montage of clips of the early Stones and commercial images of the mid-1960s, we come to a young Mick Jagger in an ascot, sitting smugly beside a vaguely German man who’s theorizing about the singer’s rapturous fan base. “When these girls pounce upon Mick and seem to want to tear him to pieces, it’s not essentially an act of aggression,” the expert suggests, “but rather an act of devouring him. They want to incorporate his essence. It’s a sort of fetishism which has more in common with people collecting the relics of saints, as they did in the ancient past. There’s really no break with the ancient tradition -- it’s just a question of form.” The camera cuts over to Jagger, and the look on his face is inscrutable for a moment, before he hunches down to light a cigarette, and the expert goes on, “I’ve seen this with the most marvelous, dramatic intensity, with two or three thousand young girls in Manchester, and these girls, they wept, they were possessed by the spirit -- and I may add that all their little panties were soaking wet at the end. I mean, the complete physical and mental absorption.” The camera’s back on Jagger as he smirks at the last bit, agreeing with the assessment, but then he spins the analysis away from fan girls. “I think what’s more interesting is that in this country, the audience is indeed all girls and they do behave in this way, but in the rest of the world, this isn’t true. In lots of places, they’re nearly all boys. With the boys, it erupts, you know, much more aggressively. And they use it to have a great fight with the police. And they just beat the police up. As a show of sort of strength. Or a show of dissatisfaction. Or something.” Underneath it all, the first strains of “Paint It Black” start pulsing through, until they cut away, to shots of young boys pounding the stage, half gleeful, half infuriated. If there is one thing that’s pretty damn hard to find at a One Direction concert, it’s boys. And even harder to find there, amongst any gender, is a show of dissatisfaction. 2. If Britain has conquered the early-21st-century boy band, we’ve got the indisputable solo prince of pop here in America. Well, actually, Justin Bieber is Canadian. I could claim him for North America, but that doesn’t really seem necessary. Bieber is an American product: after the small-town childhood and the single-mother upbringing, he was a near-overnight YouTube phenomenon at 13 -- a phenomenon carefully fostered and orchestrated by recording-industry superstars. Bieber’s success is staggering but strangely focused: he wholly absorbs his target demographic, without much penetration beyond. A decade or two removed from that fan base, I know him for his fame alone -- the only song I could’ve sung along with before starting this piece is the one that repeats the word “baby” about 500 times (title: “Baby”). And this is coming from a person who really enjoyed a One Direction concert. But maybe that ubiquitous fame is all that really matters. That’s where we start with Teddy Wayne's new novel, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, whose eponymous protagonist is clearly drawn from a Bieber archetype -- sometimes the satirical masking feels so light that it’s hard to imagine that reality is much different. The superficial details of his life match his counterpart: raised by a single mother in St. Louis, he, too, was discovered on YouTube and promptly snapped up by a major record label. We meet him in the middle of his second tour, which doesn’t seem to be going as well as his first, with his mother and manager, Jane, and a small cast of handlers -- bodyguard, choreographer, and tutor, the latter of whom helpfully assigns Jonny a series of slave narratives to read. The strictness of his regime is painfully clear from the start. At only 11, Jonny is a good deal younger than your average teen pop icon, which serves to make the impact of his megastardom all the more extreme. His general confusion reads like the classic child star narrative, pre-adolescence deeply muddled by fame: he has more knowledge of the adult world than any child ought to have, but in other matters, he’s achingly clueless. He prides himself on his accuracy pinpointing adults’ exact ages and weights -- and between stringent calorie-counting and pre-show vomiting, it’s clear he’s got an eating disorder himself. His only frame of reference for friendship seems to be the single good friend he left behind in St. Louis, and he has to substitute his good-natured, middle-aged bodyguard for both best friend and father figure. He relies on a video game, “The Secret Land on Zenon,” for distraction and as a template for making sense of the world. And when he speaks, mostly in internal first-person narration, we get a mix of normal, if slightly awkward 11-year-old boy and strange corporate recording-industry drone -- a walking embodiment of a marketing plan presented to him, “JONNY VALENTINE 2.0 BRAND-EXTENSION STRATEGY” -- parroting adult voices with hollow certainty. It’s this juxtaposition that gives Jonny poignancy. When he returns to St. Louis for the first time, he pauses before an interview on a national morning show: Being a consummate professional means doing your job when you don’t want to, so I sucked it up and pasted on a huge smile when the camera light blinked and Robin introduced me as America’s Angel of Pop and the girls screamed like they were getting attacked and I got ready to give answers in Auto-Tune mode, where they sound right but have nothing behind them. Jonny is quick to scrub away self-pity with self-chastisement, and it all works to make him a deeply likable and thoroughly heartbreaking character. He is being mismanaged on every level, and whether that’s a critique of the personal or the professional is impossible to sort out, because they’re so intricately entwined. Much of the blame should land squarely on the culture at large -- and that, of course, is the main target of Wayne’s satire. We get snippets of media, articles that ring uncomfortably true across a range of publications, and we get Internet comment threads full of celebratory snark after a man tries to assault Jonny during a concert. “It’s like people are afraid to be the first one to be an asshole, but once some others clear the way, they get super-excited about it,” he thinks. “Except with most blogs, the blogger himself is the biggest asshole, so all the commenters think it’s okay to write whatever they want from the start.” It’s air-tight satire, particularly because Wayne doesn’t have to do much to alter modern-day America -- we’re admittedly a bunch of celebrity-sucking vampires, after all, just as so many celebrities jump to bare their necks to us -- and as the narrative rings true, the boy Jonny’s forced to mold himself into becomes all the more tragic. He lives a deeply false life, but our complacency in this, whether we’re teeny-boppers or not, lends us that same cheapness. It’s masterfully done, but it does leave us mired in the age-old questions of celebrity and authenticity, wondering what about any of this is new. 3. And then there are the Latchkeys. The opening act on Jonny’s tour is a four-piece band of 20-somethings, with “literate” and sexuality explicit lyrics and a heartthrob lead singer, Zack Ford, whose female teenage fans overlap with the older end of Jonny’s demographic. Zack plays a lot of roles in the novel: an older brother for Jonny; an idol and a role model, usurping Tyler Beats, the Justin Timberlake figure who looms in Jonny’s mind as a benchmark for enduring pop stardom; a well-meaning bad influence, slipping whiskey into ginger ale under the table; and, occasionally, a homoerotic point of focus as Jonny grapples with puberty. And perhaps most importantly, Zack is a foil, as Jonny haltingly stumbles over questions of authenticity and the definition of success. Because Zack is working through the questions that Jonny can sense but can’t yet articulate: he worships The Clash’s “Complete Control,” to the chagrin of his band-mates. “They said we'd be artistically free / When we signed that bit of paper.” The Latchkeys are described disdainfully by a minor character as “corporate indie rock for the masses. The Urban Outfitters of bands,” despite Jonny’s defensive protests that they weren’t, in this girl’s words, “cooked up in some music laboratory by a group of record executives to sound exactly like it wasn’t,” just a bunch of college friends that had made it big. But in a way, the distinction no longer matters. And she says as much -- when she accuses the band of being “rich white boys” and Jonny talks about Zack’s working-class roots, she says, “He’s rich now. All that matters is what you are now.” Does it matter to us how culture is made? Won’t we swallow the cooked-up laboratory celebrity just as easily as the authentic talent? And does it even matter if, like Jonny, it’s a case of both? The past decade has seen the conversation surrounding "reality" reach a fever pitch; the children born and raised under the shadow of this conversation must inevitably turn to Jonny Valentine, or Justin Bieber, or whoever else ticks all the right boxes, as brand strategists figure out which boxes matter the most. As long as we take our cues from them, nothing changes. Mick Jagger, who once said, “I’d rather be dead than singing ‘Satisfaction’ when I'm 45,” turns 70 this July. Tickets for a string of Rolling Stones 50th anniversary concerts last autumn sold for thousands of pounds online. “Everybody all right in the cheap seats?" Jagger asked at the O2 Arena in London last November. “They aren’t so cheap though, are they? That’s the trouble.” There’s another moment in Crossfire Hurricane, in which an off-screen interviewer probes a black turtlenecked-Jagger about his appeal to young people. The camera stays tight on his face. Interviewer: Why, then, if you think that most of your work is about dissatisfaction and so on, why do you think you’re so popular? Mick Jagger: Because most young people are dissatisfied. I: In what way? MJ: With the generation which they think is running their lives. I: What things are you dissatisfied with? [and here Jagger gazes off-screen for a moment, his brow furrowing in thought, before looking straight at the camera, like he’s telling the punch line to the world’s most serious joke] MJ: The generation that runs our lives. Image source: waitscm
Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Beautiful and Exciting and Profoundly Different: On Beck’s Song Reader

1. Have you heard Beck’s new album? After about 20 hours with it I’ve still only heard seven songs out of 20. That’s because I’m a mediocre musician, with poor sight-reading skills and no piano handy, and Song Reader, if you didn’t already know, is just sheet music. No CD, no link to downloadable MP3s, nada. I have to puzzle out the melodies on my guitar, drawing on long forgotten undergraduate music theory to get the rhythms right. It is a pain in the ass. The album would sound better if it were professionally recorded, by a real artist. And yet. When I finally manage to play through “I’m Down,” and “America, Here’s My Boy,” and “Do We? We Do,” it is revelatory. I have just channeled Beck’s spirit through printed paper! The first versions of Beck’s songs I hear are my own! This is an amazing feeling. If you are not musically trained and do not have a musician near at hand, Song Reader may be a tough sell. True, the artwork is nice to look at. You can read the lyrics, and the introduction by Jody Rosen, and the foreword by Beck himself. These are worthwhile activities. The graphic design is skillful. Beck’s lyrics read well, for song lyrics. The introductions are illuminating. And as you look all this over you will think, for the first time, probably, about how back in the day people did not buy albums, they bought scores, and you sat in a park or your parlor (whatever that is) and listened to someone’s interpretation of those scores, maybe a friend or a relative, or you interpreted them yourself. But then you will want to hear the songs, and they are not readily accessible. In fact, a few months ago they weren’t accessible at all. When I first received the album (in the mail!), only four of the songs had been recorded and shared online, and the renditions ranged from decent (The New Yorker staff) to tragic. By the time I sat down to write this essay, though, over 100 had been uploaded to the official McSweeney’s website and YouTube. There is already one very polished video of “Old Shanghai,” the pre-released sheet music single. The Portland Cello Project has now recorded the whole thing and posted it on YouTube. These options will still leave some people dissatisfied, and they may remain so until Beck releases “official” versions. Which he will, of course, in due time (though according to an interview not anytime soon). That’s why there’s no reason for anyone to complain. As for me, I’m trying to steer clear of other people’s versions, at least until I’ve made my own. 2. I’ll leave it for accomplished music writers to review the music. I want to talk about Song Reader as a book. It is a great book. It is better than Choose Your Own Adventure books, or Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, or The Clock Without a Face, a 2010 McSweeney’s production whose busily illustrated pages hid clues to a real-world treasure-hunt. Beck’s book is better than all of these because it does not feel forced or gimmicky. It is the hipster tendency to appropriate anachronism at its very, very best. Why? Because it requires hack musicians like myself to push their abilities. Because it is nostalgia in its purest form. (See the moon begin to rise / just like it did back home, I sing as I play “Old Shanghai.”) Because it trains patience. Because through anachronism it succeeds in making brilliant use of current technological forms, reproducing endlessly, an album with infinite authentic tracks. Because I will practice Beck’s songs, along with thousands of other people, and we will watch and listen along with Beck as the world plays his music. He will find out how his music sounds. I will find out, too. Neither of us will have the final say. It is ultra-quaint and ultra-post-modern simultaneously. This is a really fantastic book. Did I mention it sounds good? I mean, I sound good when I read the pages out loud, and that’s saying a lot. The songs are user-friendly, in easy musical keys, consciously written for people like me. Thank you, Beck! 3. Classical musicians and jazz musicians and producers of musicals regularly encounter music in its raw and unprocessed state. What makes Song Reader nothing short of genius is the way it upends the expectations of its audience, most of whom (I assume) do not read music for a living, or even recreationally. No one gets to instantly download the songs. There are no traditional reviews. No previews on iTunes. When people discuss the relative merits of the album, the conversation cannot help but become a meta-conversation: “What is an album?” “Where is the album?” “Whose album is it?” I have had a few of these conversations. They are everything philosophizing should be -- earnest, enthusiastic, and revelatory. Someone points out that no one can pirate the album. Someone else wonders about copyright law: can you just perform Beck’s songs, or does he get royalties? The conversation veers towards cover bands, and whether they have any legal or financial obligation to the original band. We think about music, and law, and authenticity through the lens of Beck’s book, as though for the first time. Song Reader is about firsts. One of those firsts, for me, is the realization of a reward built into sheet music that cannot happen any other way. Playing Beck’s songs is like discovering home-cooking after a life of eating at restaurants. This feeling of discovery is not better than listening to Beck play his own songs, no more than preparing my own pasta is better than going out to my favorite Italian joint. Home-cooking is not better or worse than eating at restaurants. It is an entirely different activity. This is what Beck wanted: “Learning to play a song is its own category of experience.” Some activities should not be forgotten by popular culture. Cooking is among them. So, too, is the musical experience that Beck has recreated. There is no word for it, but now I know what it is, and it is beautiful and exciting and profoundly different from any experience of music I have ever had. Like cooking, it has been eclipsed by technologies of convenience. It takes time and effort to play through Beck’s album, or to wait for other people to do so, or to call your musician friends and have them do it for you. This is time and effort many people won’t want to spend. Too bad. It’s worth it. You won’t just hear the album, you’ll work for it. And that work will add to the music, just like you can taste your own labor in a home-cooked meal. I’m not saying every album should come out in the form of sheet music. Neither is Beck. But in its exceptionalism, Song Reader reminds us of the invisible losses that accompany cultural movement and technological innovation, losses that need not always be accepted. (There is probably a lesson in here somewhere about the relationship between paper books and e-books.) Be careful, says Beck’s experiment. Move slowly, and make sure you haven’t left anything important behind. Why did you leave it? Was there room to bring it along? At Slate, Geeta Dayal describes Song Reader as a signpost of the new earnestness in our culture, offering tepid praise: “It’s not a bad thing -- it’s a constructive impulse, and a sincere one.” But she also warns us not to “mistake it for a manifesto,” pointing out that Bing Crosby, whose song “Sweet Leilani” inspired Song Reader, couldn’t read music, and neither could Jimi Hendrix. Beck, she complains, made much use of the recording studio. So let’s not get preachy about halcyon days, right? Maybe. But Beck (and McSweeney’s) never meant Song Reader as an anti-technology manifesto. Otherwise there wouldn’t be an official website for people to upload their songs. What makes it feel like a manifesto (a fuck you, according to Dayal) is latent insecurities in our own culture, insecurities that I share, about loss and progress. Fox-hunts do not look like manifestos because we are not sad about what their disappearance represents. At best they seem romantic, at worst a reminder of a barbaric past better forgotten entirely. That’s not the case with Song Reader. When Song Reader is stuck in my head, I feel a strange kind of longing. My iPod can’t give me what I want. Neither can the Internet, really, since what I want is more versions of the songs that belong to ME. I want to hear more of my Beck album! But now I’ve played through all the songs I can sight-read easily. So I’m either going to have to work harder or get some help -- two activities I would never have associated with listening to music, but which are now integral to one of my favorite albums in a long, long time. And I can say “favorite” confidently, without even having listened to the whole thing.
Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Frankly Singing

Frank Sinatra, Jr at the Seminole Casino Coconut Creek The Sands was a real casino, my father explains. It was Sinatra’s favorite den. Of bloody reds and kingly golds, money greens and piano-gloss blacks. This place — the Seminole Casino Coconut Creek, just outside Pompano in South Florida — isn’t that. I roll a critical eye around the space. Its Tuscan palette reminds me of a California Pizza Kitchen piped with ropes of rainbow lights. On walls, framed promotional posters seduce; “FIND THE FUN YOU!” Another appletini slips by our hightop table; at the bottom of its glass, one merry cherry like a clown nose. I watch a Native American man in a sky-blue windbreaker quietly receive this, his second drink. Meanwhile, my father has pulled out and is scanning what he calls “the destructions.” Turn camera ON. Take little black thingy off. Avoid eye contact with daughter. Talk to Frank Sinatra, Jr... yourself! He reassures me, he’s only joking. But he does not look like he’s joking, and I worry a piece of arugula between my fingers, thinking, This was probably a bad idea. (The lettuce tears.) Above us, in the casino restaurant, white speakers the size of dinner plates happen to be playing Frank Sinatra. Dad sings: Scooby dooby-doo... scooby dooby... scooby dooby-doo... “Strangers in the night...” (he’s packing up the camera)... “lovers at first sight...” (he’s lifting his glass of red toward the ceiling, toward Sinatra). Dad’s phone buzzes and he answers, “How are you, handsome?” His business call manners are something I remember always liking. Even when I was a kid — at first, mobile phones were the size of bricks — and we were in the car, and I would wait half hours to get a word in. I learned to prepare speeches in my head in the meantime, to audition subjects and rehearse lines of conversation. If I was going to say something, better make it good. But listening to my father’s voice (umpiring — conciliating — barking), I couldn’t imagine having views important enough to pronounce as loudly, with his same command. Like Frank Sinatra, my Italian American father was born in Hoboken, New Jersey. In 1998, my father’s grandfather, my great-, had attempted to crash Sinatra’s funeral. He was determined to pay his respects to the man who had so much to do with making Italian an okay thing to be in America. “I’m just going to ask him,” says my father now. “‘So, Junior — what’s it like, baby?’” I try to give him a look learned from my mother. It means, “Just now? I am not amusable.” It means, “Don’t try.” My father swallows the last of his Cabernet with difficulty. “Hahaha, ha!” Two weeks ago, I told my father I’d been assigned to report Frank Sinatra, Jr.’s concert, told him I had a second press pass for a photographer. My father heard me loud and clear. He went out and bought a telescopic Nikon. It is now July 12, 2012, a Thursday. An hour ago, I showed him how to hold the camera like a pro, by cradling the lens in his left hand. We were in the parking garage waiting for an elevator. The long window looked out on the complex where a water tower sprouted behind the honey-colored stucco. Behind it was a backdrop of perfect pool blue sky. “Try to shoot that,” I said, pointing. He tried. But the auto-setting didn’t like the light conditions. The shot wouldn’t take. “Well,” my father mumbled; his eyes danced over the machine. “How do you do it manually?” It was at that point that dread began to gnaw on his daughter. Walking toward the venue, we pass banks of slot machines: $TINKIN’ RICH, KITTEN KABOODLE, WITCHES RICHES, SNEEKI TIKI... FRANTIC ANTICS. “Cory,” I whisper to myself. “Cory.” I might have to call my father by his first name. If so, I’ll need to keep a straight face. I make eye contact over my shoulder: “Corrado.” I can feel the twist of my mouth and tightness around my eyes. This expression is historically given to my father when I know I’ve done something bad, but also know that I know my patriarch; and he may remonstrate, he may do that, but his brown eyes are oily; on the inside, he’s cheering, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!” Anyway... it was a ridiculous pretense. We two are olive; we have wavy dark hair, the same face, and are unfortunately dressed in bootcut jeans, crisp button downs, boat shoes/moccasins, and European-seeming frames, as if to match. Who, in their right, professional mind, would bring their father on a magazine assignment? But it’s too late. I am supposed to write about the Sinatras. The tree, the apple... the grassy stage in between. The New Yorker once called Junior’s predicament an “Oedipus Hex.” Much has been made of the Sinatra redux, how Jr. doesn’t quite cut la figura of his father. Junior isn’t his father, is the problem. There is also a Frank Sinatra III. In 2010, he sent a fistful of pills down his gullet — and people said it was doing with that name of his. He cannot bear being the grandson of Sinatra. He lived, but the world will not hear from him because he doesn’t want any part of all that. Maybe his trouble had nothing to do with being a Sinatra, but from Sinatra it is hard to descend. Decades ago, one of my several “uncles,” distinguished men from my father’s circle, saw Junior play The Playboy Club in Lake Geneva. That was in 1976, early in the career of Frank Sinatra, Jr. “He was just bad,” Jim told me. They’d all fallen asleep. It had been a day, but still. They slept through the damn concert. Jim is one who’s spent an eccentric amount of time in Vegas over the years. I asked how many times he’d been. Say, fifty? More than that, came the reply. He’d seen Frank Sinatra at the inimitable Sands — its bloody reds, kingly golds; its money greens and piano-gloss blacks — twice. Sinatra was the Maker! Porkpie. He got one? Then you’d better, too. Silk mohair suit, got to have it; didn’t you see his latest movie? Outside the venue, Cory is given a lanyard and dispatched to the press pit. I am handed a civilian ticket. I find my seat in Row J; it is behind a soundboard that looks as if a penny slot machine has snuck into the concert. I wonder. Was I just upstaged by my father? I cross my legs. Well that’s just... hilarious, actually. I scribble “THE IRONY” in my notebook, then text my dad, “Just monkey-see, monkey-do it. Good luck!” I’d noticed the other photographers’ lenses were bigger, and Dad would’ve noticed, too. I can overhear the people sitting behind me in Row H. A woman says to another woman, “So then why’d you guys come again?” “I don’t knooow,” the woman clucks. “Because we had tickets.” Junior opens with “That Face.” His own face is ovoid and doughy. I’m aware his eyes are hazel, not blue. He wears a light gray blazer over a white dress shirt with an oblique-striped white and navy tie, and charcoal pants. He sounds — My God. — like velvet. He sounds a hell of a lot like his dad, a fact for which, somehow, I wasn’t prepared except notionally. So taken aback am I, tears spring. I can’t believe it. The Pavilion seats an audience of 1,200, mostly white hair. The venue is nearly sold out. Junior travels with a sight: a full orchestra of 21 jazz musicians. The brass are brassy, the strings are strung out, and the singing is Frankly, for sure. The audience erupts now and again in plaudit. “Do you hear that band?” Junior asks. “‘bones?” The trombonists stand up and blow, their brass instruments flashing like Rolexes. The lights throw paisley shapes on the brown curtain. “Thank you so much,” he says gently. “O!” And the lights scatter like surprised mice. He is singing one of Senior’s bills now. “Here’s to the losers. / Here’s to those who still believe. / The losers.” I look around. Ladies’ earrings are swinging like chandeliers. People are nodding; they’re putting their whole bodies into it. “You like the standards — so do I,” Junior says. He’s fisting the microphone. “Venus de Milo / Is noted for her charms . . .” He delineates an hourglass figure with his free hand. At 8:26 p.m., a text message appears from my father. “I made a deal with the real photographers.” I reply with an emoticon:  “:-).” There is no time to process what a deal could mean. Junior is warning the crowd, “Don’t be fooled by reasonable facsimiles.” “The great days of these shows are in another era.” So he’s gonna do something for them he’s started doing, which is to “resurrect” the past, “the classic night club acts.” “Enough,” he says.” He asks the drummer, “May I have a rolling timpani, please?” Junior must be sharper than his namesake. He has outsmarted us all. He has beaten everyone to the punchline by tuning his voice. He pantomimes tossing back a stiff drink. Eh. He takes another swig of thin air, sings, “When you’re drinking / Sure looks good to you!” It is Dean Martin up there! Junior is doing Dino. “I love it in Florida/ So carefree and gay / I’d even work here / Without any pay . . . / My clever agent / Worked out this deal . . . “ They know what’s next, but when he turns on dad with “Without A Song,” the distance between a Jr. and a Sr. collapses. Some fatness in the peaks, that is what’s added; that is what makes the son sound like the father. In purple light, the stage is dyed the color of a Roman emperor’s robe. Under it the harp looks like a wishbone. When the lights turn to gold, all the white and gray hair in the crowd becomes blond. An hour into the show we get “Strangers in the Night.” I brighten. Dad must be loving this. I’m shaking with laughter, remembering him singing it two hours ago in the restaurant. “Wond'ring in the night! / What were the chances...” After the song, Junior relates a time in the ‘90s, when he was working at the end of his father’s career — at the end of father’s life — conducting the band. By this time, Senior could not always remember the lyrics, let alone the lineup. This one time, Junior was onstage “makin’ pizza” in front of the orchestra, and Sinatra leaned over: “What’s next?” So Junior told him. “Oh, that,” Sinatra sneered. Later that night in Senior’s hotel room, Junior had to get it right. Did his dad not like that song? “I hate that song,” sniffed Senior. Nine... million... records. Nine million! And he... hates this song? Well, that’s what Junior was thinking. “I’ll take a hand-me-down!” he told his audience now. “I’m not proud at all!” Junior’s reviews were in places like Guns & Ammo. He could never enthuse the way his father did. From the beginning, Junior was encouraged to chart different territory. In the '60s, when country music was really happening, managers thought he should try that. But Junior wouldn’t have it. (In his opinion, if the music wasn’t in the Great American Songbook, it wasn’t worth anyone’s time of day.) There was one he damn-near recorded, because the title was so good. It was called “You’re the Reason Our Children Are So Ugly.” For his second-to-last tune, Junior gets the house to sing “New York, New York” as if we’re not in Florida. The stage displays sunset-red. The crowd shimmies in their seats; they kick their legs side-to-side like showgirls. Then Junior tells us “Put Your Dreams Away.” He smiles. That’s a “family heirloom,” he says. “Thank you for remembering the music of Sinatra,” he says, and let’s fly a refrain I hear as a sad fact of Junior’s life: “YES . . . / It was mmmy wayyy...” “Goodnight, everybody.” Soon after, powerless, I watch the harpist encase the wishbone and cart it offstage. It’s clear there will be no interview. There is no backstage access at this concert, though PR did not inform my editor it would be the case. I meet Dad on the shoulder of the casino floor fifteen minutes later. “Dad, there is no backstage.” The little girl in me steels. “—I tried.” (I better have, for my father is marked by an ability to finesse “NO” into “YES.” Getting backstage is a game, not of luck, but skill. “Guess what? We’re...,” my mother frequently reports. To which I can only respond: “How?” “You know your father,” says the mother.) But I’d spoken to Steve, a large man in charge. And Steve was adamant. Another reporter and photographer — incidentally, boyfriend-girlfriend — are disappointed too. My father had already doled out Heinekens. After the first song, when the photographers were required to disperse, he had prostrated himself at the woman’s feet, or something like that. She’d agreed to provide his daughter the necessary photos. Later, Dad would slip me a business card; I’d find out he’d convinced a second photographer to do the same — for back up. Now, do I want a beer? I don’t want one, no. I am auditing the bits and pieces, trying to figure if I can pull a minor (a very minor) Gay Talese... when the venue doors pop open. It is Junior and his entourage. They are coming out. I have enough time to think, They’re all wearing all black. Then I feel my father’s hand pressing on my back. He pushes me toward Junior — “Frank, this is my daughter Chantel.” Junior actually turns around. “Chantel. What a pretty French name.” His handshake is warm, significant. He moves to greet the coupled reporter and photographer; he bids — “Chantel, it was a pleasure” — and is gone. My father’s hand comes to rest on my shoulder. People feed the slots. They crowd the green, felt stages of blackjack tables, and it’s not immediately clear who are the winners and who the losers — but there is congratulatory cigar smoke in the air. As we, father and daughter, make our way to the elevator, there again is the voice of Frank Sinatra. Softly over the speakers, Sr. sings. “Don’t you know little fool? / You never can win.”   Photo courtesy of Stephanie Shacter
Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Chuck Berry, Neoclassicist

Compare: I want to run, I want to hide I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside I want to reach out and touch the flame Where the streets have no name. (U2, “Where the Streets Have No Name”) Way down South they gave a jubilee Them Georgia folks they had a jamboree They’re drinking home brew from a wooden cup The folks dancing there got all shook up. (Chuck Berry, “Rock and Roll Music”) Now, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, and because I'm one myself I know how devoted rock and roll fans are to their favorite bands, but it must be seen that compared to the Chuck Berry lyric, the U2 lyric is, well, shit. I say this as a fervent admirer of U2 and one who was lucky enough to witness the band perform “Where the Streets Have No Name” in 1987 or so, when to hear it for the first time was to be swept up in a tide of communal idealism. Who could argue with such lofty sentiments, especially when accompanied by the surge of the Edge’s ringing guitar and the most propulsive rhythm section in all of rock? Alas, there isn’t a word, phrase, or image in the whole song not utterly staled by cliché. As in much of the best rock and roll, the majesty of the music disguises the triteness of the lyrics. There’s no triteness to be disguised in “Rock and Roll Music.” It is what “Where the Streets Have No Name” manifestly is not: poetry, or at least a variety of folk poetry that delights in language and its own expressiveness. Not that “Rock and Roll Music” will ever be mistaken for “Sailing to Byzantium” or “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In the first place, it’s a song, with lyrics not intended to be experienced apart from the music. Secondly, it derives from and relates to pop culture, not high art; as he cheerfully admits in his Autobiography, Chuck Berry has read a total of six books in his life. Yet who would disdain the wit and ingenuity of a typical Chuck Berry lyric merely because it lacks the density of Yeats’s Byzantium poems? Good and great poetry lies all around us. Whether it comes to us over a car radio or in a heavily annotated textbook, it’s still poetry. In a long-ago television interview I half remember, Berry described his songwriting method as entirely commercial. He studied the market and hit upon three common denominators for the mass (mostly white) teenage audience he aspired to reach: school, because school was the locus of teenage social life; cars, because teenagers in the car-crazy fifties and early sixties couldn’t wait to get the keys to the ignition in their hands; and love, because “everybody falls in love, or wants to fall in love.” Two things struck me about that interview – that Berry conceived of songwriting in terms more collective than subjective (the opposite tendency – I hurt! I suffer! I'm famous! – tends to be the norm in rock and roll); and that he had the delicacy to understand that while everybody wants to fall in love, some people never will. So in addition to his acuity and catholicity, I'd add another attribute to the list of Chuck Berry’s compositional distinctions: his humanity. That he himself, according to Keith Richards and others who have worked with him, has all the charm of a rattlesnake only adds to the poignancy of his lyrics. When I consider what Chuck Berry the man might have wanted to do with a sweet little sixteen-year-old girl (he says almost as much in his Autobiography, a book that does nothing to allay his reputation for sleaziness), the tender solicitude of that song seems even more remarkable: Sweet Little Sixteen She’s got the grownup blues Tight dresses and lipstick She’s sportin’ high-heeled shoes Oh but tomorrow morning She’ll have to change her trend And be sweet sixteen And back in class again. Exactly: a sixteen-year-old girl is at once an innocent child and a sexual agent. This doubleness so disturbs us that we (meaning middle-aged men like me) tend to conceive of such a creature as childlike or provocative but not both. Well, sorry – this sixteen-year-old girl is hot as a volcano but still elicits all the paternal protectiveness the song bestows on her. Note also that Sweet Little Sixteen isn’t “wearing” high-heeled shoes; she’s “sportin’” them. You could say that “sportin” is to “wearing” what poetry is to prose. Or you could say that it’s the right verb for the right line, providing the necessary linkage, as it were, between vehicle and tenor. Or you could say nothing at all and just dig it. I could no more define poetry than I could play guitar like Chuck Berry (I’ve tried – it’s harder than it looks), but I do know that the one thing all poetry must have is a love for language that ultimately transcends instrumentality. Words mean things, and the better the poem, the more meanings attach to the words, but in the way that painters fall in love with paint itself – pushing it, pulling it, scumbling it, scraping it – poets fall in love with words. Like any true poet, Berry has what James Schuyler, in “The Morning of the Poem,” called the “innate love of words,” the “sense of / How the thing said / Is in the words, how / The words are themselves / The thing said.” Given the poverty of the standard rock and roll lexicon, where words like “baby,” “love,” “run,” “hide,” “want,” “need,” “live,” “die,” and “bodacious” circulate with depressing regularity, the key words in Berry’s songs stand out as poems in themselves: “calaboose” for car in “No Particular Place To Go” or “hound” for Greyhound bus in “The Promised Land” or “motivatin’” for what might be described as “motoring joyfully but with determined purpose” in “Maybellene.” Those six books he read more than sufficed. Berry’s idiomatic exuberance derives not from the written word but from oral traditions in African American and even Southern white culture. No surprise that a black musician would draw on the structural template of the blues, but that the same musician would see the compatibility of blues structures with the narrative sense of country music – that sounds a bit like the birth of rock and roll, actually. (Elvis Presley made a similar discovery coming from the opposite direction.) The catalog of place names in the first verse of “Sweet Little Sixteen,” for instance, is echt-country, yet the song itself is as stolid a twelve-bar blues as any composition by, say, Willie Dixon, who, as a matter of fact, played bass on it. So where are they rockin’? They’re really rockin’ in Boston In Pittsburgh, PA Deep in the heart of Texas And round the ‘Frisco Bay All over St. Louis And down in New Orleans All the cats want to dance with Sweet Little Sixteen. You could draw a pretty comprehensive map of America from the poetry of place names in Chuck Berry’s songs. Norfolk Virginia, downtown Birmingham, Houston town, Albuquerque, Los Angeles: they’re all there in “The Promised Land,” inventoried with great good humor even when the traveler encounters, as we all do from time to time, “motor trouble that turned into a struggle.” Wouldn’t “The Promised Land” make a better national anthem than that unsingable and bellicose dirge we’re stuck with? I left my home in Norfolk Virginia California on my mind I straddled that Greyhound and rode him into Raleigh And on across Caroline . . . Workin’ on a T-bone steak a la carte Flying’ over to the Golden State When the pilot told us in thirteen minutes He would set us at the terminal gate. Swing low chariot, come down easy Taxi to the terminal zone Cut your engines and cool your wings And let me make it to the telephone. Los Angeles give me Norfolk Virginia Tidewater 4-10-0-9 Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin’ And the poor boy’s on the line. Now, some people might suspect the motive of a songwriter who could write such a paean to place when the place in question subjected him to constant racial harassment. But Berry never concealed his motive – to make as much money as possible. How American is that? That a man who had every reason to begrudge his country could write “The Promised Land” or the even more besotted “Living in the USA” (“Looking hard for a drive-in, searching for a corner café . . . / Yeah, and the juke box jumping with records like in the USA”) is, for me, cause for the profoundest patriotism. Furthermore, unlike “This Land Is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie’s national anthem of Depression-era populism, “The Promised Land” doesn’t ask that you hate the rich or share the singer’s sectarian politics. (Listen to the rarely sung verses four and five if you don’t believe me.) I do hate the rich, but that’s because I'm not as generous of spirit as Chuck Berry is. All that “The Promised Land” and “Living in the USA” ask of you is that you love American place names, not be a complete stiff, and maybe appreciate a “rare hamburger sizzling on an open grill night and day.” Although the right word is ideally a poem in itself, you still have to put one next to another. This too Berry does with masterly efficiency. The way his words roll off the tongue in “Tulane” and “Downbound Train” and so many others turns language into music – a useful quality for a body of songs not known for their melodic invention. (Let’s face it, Chuck’s thing is rhythm, not melody.) Most pop song lyrics don’t scan on the page and don’t need to, but sometimes Berry’s compositional regularity requires the assistance of some classical versification, as in the giddy triple meters of “School Days”: Up in the  /morning and / out to school The teacher / is teaching / the golden / rule Ameri/can his’try / and practi/cal math You study / ‘em hard and / hopin’ to / pass Workin’ your / fingers right / down to the / bone The guy / behind you / won’t leave you / alone Ring ring / goes the bell The cook in / the lunch room’s / ready to / sell You’re lucky / if you / can find / a seat You’re for/tunate if / you have time / to eat Back in the / classroom op/en your books Gee but the / teacher don’t / know How mean / she looks. No, Berry probably didn’t know he was using anapestic, dactylic, and amphibrachic feet, but neither, I suspect, did the anonymous author of “There Once Was a Man from Nantucket,” and he (or she) was a genius too. Chuck Berry has had a hard life: reform school, two prison terms, financial exploitation, bankruptcy, racial discrimination, and much else. It is not his manner to rehearse his private grief in public, though the sly braggadocio of “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and the crypto-autobiography of “Johnny B. Goode” trade playfully on his public image. Whether the pathos of “Memphis, Tennessee” derives from his own domestic sorrows is, strictly speaking, beside the point, though in a song this tender and touching, no supposition seems entirely extraneous. At any rate, “Memphis, Tennessee” is one of the greatest story songs in American music, all the more affecting for being so offhand and bouncy. (Berry himself, so he says in his Autobiography, played the swooping bass and “the ticky-tack drums that trot along in the background.”) What appears on first listening to be just another comic ditty about frustrated pedophilia (or so I used to interpret the top-forty version by Johnny Rivers that I knew as a child) turns out to be the desperate plea of a divorced father barred from any contact with his six-year-old daughter. The narrative builds to its final revelation piece by piece, with incidental details carrying an emotional load too freighted to be acknowledged outright: that the girl is furtively trying to reach her father; that the father has taken refuge with relatives; that although he now lives in the sort of place where messages are written on the wall, he once lived in a house high on a ridge overlooking the river; that the girl’s mother, not he, has broken up the family. And all of this – the heartbreak, the loss, the wit – by way of a conversation with a telephone operator: Long distance information, give me Memphis Tennessee Help me find the party trying to get in touch with me She could not leave her number but I know who placed the call ‘Cause my uncle took the message and he wrote it on the wall . . . Last time I saw Marie she’s waving me goodbye With hurry home drops on her cheeks that trickled from her eye Marie is only six years old, information please Try to put me through to her in Memphis Tennessee. Berry’s take on the song in his Autobiography may seem naïve, but to me it sounds like the very definition of classicism: “The situation in the story was intended to have a wide scope of interest to the general public rather than a rare or particular incidental occurrence that would entreat the memory of only a few. Such a portrayal of popular or general situations and conditions in lyrics has always been my greatest objective in writing.” Add a “sir” and complicate the syntax a bit, and this could be Dr. Johnson speaking to Boswell or Sir Joshua Reynolds. Although “Memphis, Tennessee” addresses a more adult audience than Berry’s more typical ballads of teenage life, even the ballads of teenage life are classicist: we were all teenagers once and we have all fallen, or (to observe Berry’s astute qualification) want to fall, in love. Blues, country and western, Johnsonian neoclassicism: these are the traditions that nurture Chuck Berry’s lyrical art. But really, who gives a damn about the categories when you’re listening to something as smoking as “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”? Many critics have taken this song to be a pointed avowal of black pride (not exactly a safe career move in 1956), and since the songwriter himself is unquestionably a brown eyed handsome man, blackness (or brownness) is very much to the point. In fact, the opening lines – “Arrested on charges of unemployment / He was sitting in the witness stand” – call to mind all too clearly the sort of harassment that black Americans have had to endure. But there’s that classicism again – all women, everywhere, have been falling for a certain kind of handsomeness “Way back in history three thousand years / In fact ever since the world began.” This would include the Venus de Milo (here reimagined as a modern girl named Milo Venus) who, like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is “No more, but e’en a woman.” Why should it be any different for her than for the judge’s wife in the first verse who “called up the district attorney / She said you free that brown eyed man / If you want your job you better free that brown eyed man”? Never, it seems to me, has the universalizing tendency of classicism been more cogently expressed: Milo Venus was a beautiful lass She had the world in the palm of her hand She lost both her arms in a wrasslin’ match To get a brown eyed handsome man She fought and won herself a brown eyed handsome man. Robert Christgau, in Grown Up All Wrong, wrote that Chuck Berry “was one of the ones to make us understand that the greatest thing about art is the way it happens among people.” Berry himself makes no such claims. He really seems to believe that compared to a transcendent “artist” like Joan Crawford, who “will go down in the history books of even Russia, China, and Arabia,” he is a mere satellite, “circl[ing] a few years in the foreign magazines and then fad[ing] away in the next conventional war.” Far from being a “star,” he merely has a job to do and a check to pick up. Although Berry’s underestimation of his own talent seems incomprehensible, it did save him (and us) from the windy grandiloquence of songs like “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Anyway, it’s a refreshing twist – the rock auteur who, for once, doesn’t think he’s a genius. For people of my parents’ generation, rock songwriting seemed a paltry thing, and they certainly would have believed that Chuck Berry lacked anything like the sophistication of Ira Gershwin or Cole Porter. That may be. But I didn’t grow up with Broadway musicals, I grew up with rock and roll, and it is to that happily debased art form that I owe my first exposure to poetry. Before rock and pop lyrics in the late sixties and early seventies turned to the outer reaches of narcissism (gloriously exemplified by Joni Mitchell and John Lennon, among others), they tended to follow in the more impersonal and commercial lines laid down by Berry and that he too was following from lines laid down by Nat King Cole, Louis Jordan, and others. I will concede that, lyrically, Brian Wilson was no match for Lorenz Hart, but the Beach Boys got to me first, and when I was ten years old the perfect couplets of “I Get Around” conjured up a world as glamorously ritualized and unreal as the Arthurian romances, which I read avidly in those days but found a tad pale by comparison: I'm getting’ bugged driving up and down this same old strip I gotta find a new place where the kids are hip My buddies and me are getting real well known Yeah the bad guys know us and they leave us alone. It was like first looking into Chapman’s Homer. Language (and not just Wilson’s superb compositions and the band’s gorgeous harmonies) had revealed to me a world more beautiful and desirable than the one I lived in, even if I dimly perceived that no such world could possibly exist. (It sure didn’t exist for Brian Wilson and his brothers, whose hellish upbringing in what looked like a picture perfect California household went unmentioned in their songs.) Not every song, not even every Beach Boy song, held such wonders. Even then a catchy chorus and flashy guitar break served to deflect attention from the nullity of the lyrics. Anyway, if the song was as great as “Be My Baby” or “Louie Louie,” who could complain? Yet as an unprecocious child I had heard enough real poetry in the songs of the Beach Boys and Smokey Robinson and Chuck Berry (usually in cover versions by later bands) to know that words could be more than functional. When, a few years later, pop musicians were suddenly writing lines like “Half of what I say is meaningless / But I say it just to reach you, Julia,” I was ready. If this more inward approach sacrificed some of the charm and playfulness of the Chuck Berry/Beach Boys/Smokey Robinson manner, it offered instead audacious explorations of the self and the permutations of consciousness. I'd call that a pretty fair trade-off. So I owe a lot to rock and roll lyricists. I wouldn’t necessarily say no John Milton without Chuck Berry, but in my case the great songwriters like Berry helped me do some of the necessary prep work. They helped me to love language. And if there were more sophisticated lyricists before Berry, there have been more sophisticated lyricists since Berry. By now the proposition that certain rock and pop songwriters have achieved depths of feeling comparable to the best poetry isn’t even controversial. Ray Davies, Shane MacGowan, Randy Newman, Lucinda Williams, Tom Waits, Warren Zevon, Morrissey, and many others – some working in a more confessional, others in a more impersonal tradition, and others making any such distinction ultimately meaningless – have all written songs that do what all good poetry does: moves, enlightens, disturbs, delights. Yet it all had to start somewhere, and in rock and roll, much of the greatest lyric writing started with Chuck Berry. (As for the basic musical D.N.A. of rock and roll, Berry pretty much created that too.) He could have said, as many rockers would have, knowing that the music would do most of the work, “Let’s go for a ride in my car, baby.” He didn’t. He said, “Climb into my machine so we can cruise on out.”
Reviews, Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Becoming James Brown: On RJ Smith’s The One

1. RJ Smith doesn’t draw an exact line marking when James Brown, the 5’6” son of a South Carolina turpentine maker, became James Brown, Sex Machine/Black Elvis/Mr. Please, Please, Please/etc. But I will. It happens about a third of the way through Smith’s remarkable new book, The One: The Life and Music of James Brown. Brown’s smash album, Live at the Apollo, has just spent 66 weeks on the pop charts, vaulting the performer from the sweaty dives of the chitlin’ circuit into a higher, neon-lit level of exposure. Money is pouring in fast enough for Brown to buy a mansion in Queens with a moat, and, after $65,000 in renovations, an interior lined with faux leather and pictures of himself. The singer has renovated his body, too. He pays a California dentist to fix the gap between his teeth and hires a traveling hairstylist to whirl his hair into shining bouffant praised, in the slang of the time, as “expoobident.” Meanwhile, Brown’s tour is becoming more militaristic. He hires goons to clear the way to and from shows. Onstage, he fines his musicians for missed notes or wrinkled uniforms. Offstage, he is armed and ready. “You notice how many pictures of James Brown, he’s got a coat over his arm?” the Rev. Al Sharpton asks, in the book. “That’s because he had his gun under it.” Most importantly, Brown is leaving behind blues, rock, doo-wop, and gospel in favor of a raw sound filled with screams, popping bass, and furious counter-rhythms. He is inventing the genre we currently refer to as “funk.” Smith describes the singer’s February 1965 stop in at a converted barn in Charlotte, N.C., where a control booth sits in the old hayloft. “It was time to record a tricky piece of rhythm Brown had been thinking about for a while,” he writes: The musicians set up, playing this and that while waiting for the boss to arrive. Finally, Brown’s customized white Cadillac with the tinted windows appeared, and the singer swaggered in. “He stopped the place. You just knew that somebody of significance was present,” said Clay Smith, Arthur’s [the owner of the studio] boy. Constantly in motion and talking so fast he could have used a translator, Brown was not one of the guys. “James was in charge,” Arthur Smith remembered later. “I knew I owned the studio, but I knew he was going to do what he wanted to there.” What Brown wanted to do was lay down a strutting, macho anthem marked by explosions of brass and a guitar that sounds like chrome wheels spinning. He hums a melody to the sax player and a bass line to the bassist. He thumps out a beat for the drummer. He watches a trumpet player struggle, fires him, then re-hires him moments later. And when the singer is ready, he screams out a set of lyrics scratched on a sheet of paper. The song is called “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” “Keep on Fighting” is the title of the chapter in which all of this takes place. And no matter how many superhero movies you have seen, the transformation it describes is exhilarating. Like Bruce Wayne becoming Batman or Clark Kent becoming Superman, we have just watched James Brown become Soul Brother Number One. 2. A former Los Angeles magazine editor and contributor to Blender, Spin, and The Village Voice, Smith is not the flashiest, most purely talented writer to take on the Godfather of Soul. That title, I believe, goes to Jonathan Lethem for his dazzling 2006 Rolling Stone profile, “Being James Brown.” (More on that in a minute.) In the beginning of The One, Smith struggles slightly to find the tone to tell this story. Some of his images fall flat, like when he writes that the chord structure of “Cold Sweat” was “as visionary and protean as Frida Kahlo’s one eyebrow.” At other times, his voice cracks when he reaches beyond his natural range. His description of the “lachrymose mood” of Brown’s early ballad “Try Me” feels over-academic for a performer as lusty and physical as Brown. Elsewhere, Smith sounds uncomfortably un-academic. After a street fight with estranged band members early in his career, Smith ventures inside Brown’s head. “At least them motherfuckers weren’t gonna be calling him Monk Brown to his face anymore,” he writes, in an ill-advised estimation of J.B.’s inner monologue. As a funk nerd (an oxymoron, but still true), I have other quibbles with the book. I would have liked to learn more about the nine children Brown fathered with nearly as many mothers. We see them playing Monopoly with real money during one scene, then suing for royalties later on, and that’s about it. I would have also relished a glimpse or two more inside the marathon, early-'70s recording sessions that produced “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing,” “Mind Power,” and other predecessors of modern hip-hop. But, it would be unfair to judge Smith’s book on a few slip-ups, especially when the majority of the book feels so good. Like his subject, Smith is man of stamina and drive. The fruits of his prodigious reporting are evident on every page: a secret tape of Richard Nixon whining “I don’t want any more blacks, and I don’t want any more Jews, between now and the election,” before a visit from Brown at the White House; a heartwrenching moment when Brown’s guitarist, Jimmy Nolen, asks his wife to pass on a message to Brown after Nolen’s death. “'The next person you get to work for you,' the wife dutifully reports to The Godfather, ‘I hope you treat them better than you did us.’” These facts and details provide a driving, powerful rhythm for the book, and, over time, the story seeps into your bones. In a scene that is jarringly reminiscent of the first chapter of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, we learn that, as a young man in Augusta, Ga., Brown was blindfolded and thrust into a boxing ring for a “battle royal,” while wealthy white men smoked cigars and looked on. Later in Brown’s career, we learn that country musicians in Nashville recorded a white-response to “Say it Loud -- I’m Black and I’m Proud” with the lyrics, “I’m proud and I’m white with a song to sing...” We are also there inside Brown’s Learjet when the engine stalls and the plane begins to drop precipitously. After the engines kick back in, Brown calmly turned to an acquaintance and asks if he was scared. When the man says, “Yes,” Brown responds, “It’s not your time. You with me.” Smith’s reporting is never better than his account of the singer’s 1967 trip to perform for troops in Vietnam. From the USO press release describing “primitive and somewhat savage” beat of  Brown’s music to a walkie-talkie squawking, “Get 'em out of there, there’s a mortar attack coming in” as the band traveled between shows, we are not simply reading, anymore. We are being hauled across time and space to an amphitheatre carved out of a hillside east of Saigon: At the end of a song, from behind the stage, the musicians suddenly heard the unmistakable ack-ack-ack of American guns firing on VC to the rear. Everybody was watching the band, and now they were really watching, as confusion and then anxiety played across the musicians’ faces. Finally, one of the guys sitting cross-legged at the front of the stage spoke to the band: “Aw, don’t worry. We won’t let Charlie get ya!” And then Brown took the microphone and continued the show: “Hit me!” Indeed, it Smith’s dogged research that leads to the book’s greatest achievement. James Brown was a man who went to extreme lengths to conceal any signs of weakness. The author includes plenty of examples of this -- going back on tour the day after his son Teddy’s funeral, for example -- but he also provides access to the man during rare moments of distress. We watch Brown nearly knock out his teeth as he learns the tip-the-mic-drop-to-a-split-then-bounce-back-catch-the-mic trick that would later appear effortless. As his grip on the singles charts weakens in the late 1970s, we see him tell his trombonist, Fred Wesley, to write knockoffs of other artists’ hits, like David Bowie’s “Fame.” (This was “a head-scratcher,” Smith writes, “because ‘Fame’ itself is a pale version of Brown’s 1970s sound.”) And when the IRS comes searching for millions in unpaid taxes we watch the collision of Brown’s colossal ego with one of the few forces strong enough to tame it. With the government threatening to throw a padlock on his mansion, Brown summons his accountant, Fred Daviss, to downtown Augusta one night, where they sit quietly in the singer’s van. His hair was tousled. He was sweating. “Finally, he reached under the seat and pulled out a sack of money, like he was extracting a molar,” Smith writes. “'Hold on to it as long as you can,' he told Daviss, 'But then pay 'em.'” 3. “Someday, someone will write a great biography of James Brown,” Lethem wrote in Rolling Stone in 2006. “It will by necessity, though, be more than a biography. It will be the history of a half-century of the contradictions and tragedies embodied in the fate of African Americans in the New World; it will be a parable, even of the contradictions of the individual in the capitalist society, portentous as that may sound.” Smith has written such a book: a clear, linear, trustworthy account of one of the most complex and influential musicians in American history. His biography upholds the mystique of a man whom characters in the book call “black messiah,” “the personification of Blackness,” “the ultimate god of funk,” a man with “more musical genius than Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart put together,” and, in the case of a disgruntled former drummer, “a black Hitler.” At the same time, it gamely steers through the cloud of myth and misinformation that Lethem identified as “The James Brown Zone of Confusion,” and returns the singer back to earth. Toward the end of Brown’s life, the author ushers readers into a new James Brown Zone of Confusion -- one based entirely in reality. The elderly Brown’s life was marked, on one hand, by laurels from the Kennedy Center and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and, on the other, ever-stranger behavior due to drug abuse. The collision of these two worlds, as Smith reports, was often surreal. At one point Brown gets a young Wall Street investment banker to secure a $30 million loan against his future music royalties. When they meet each other to finalize the deal, Brown asks the startled banker, “You ever smoke gorilla [PCP]?” All of this is not to say that The One is the “definitive biography of James Brown,” as the book’s promotional copy reads. Such a book will never exist. Smith’s book is not a substitute for Fred Wesley’s indispensable, Hit Me, Fred: Recollections of a Sideman or many of the pieces (including Lethem’s) in 2008’s The James Brown Reader: 50 Years of Writing About the Godfather of Soul. “Entire forests have been decimated to build the newsprint mountain that recounts his exploits, declarations, and influence,” wrote Nelson George in the introduction to that anthology. The term “definitive” attempts to seal off a man whose music, if not his heart, still thumps on. On vinyl, on YouTube, and in the musical DNA of countless current performers, James Brown lives for a new generation of writers like me, who want to drop to the floor in splits; to dance, scream, and sweat, in his honor. RJ Smith has perhaps gone further than any writer before in telling this man’s story, but his book is not definitive. It is merely expoobident. Image Credit: Wikipedia