Here is the first record actually released by Phillips on Sun, Johnny London, "Drivin' Slow" b/w "Flat Tire", from 1952:
From 1953, Rufus Thomas with an "answer record" to "Hound Dog", this one called "Bear Cat" (Joe Hill Louis on guitar). Phillips tried to claim this was a separate song, but he ended up settling, with Leiber/Stoller getting writing credit:
Next, "Mystery Train" by "Little Junior's Blue Flames" (Little Junior Parker), also from 1953 ... this would later be covered by Elvis:
And speaking of Elvis, his first single, from 1954, "That's All Right" b/w "Blue Moon of Kentucky":
I just finished Joel Selvin's book on Altamont, and then watched Gimme Shelter again. The concluding section of the book discusses Gimme Shelter. Selvin is less interested in assigning blame than in getting to the details behind the legend ... by the time we get to the movie, we've come to know many of the people who turn up in that movie, and have a better understanding of where they were coming from.
First, a few words about Selvin’s book, since I’ve written a lot about Gimme Shelter in the past. The book is long, detailed, and seems to be well-researched. Selvin was well-placed to write the book, being a Bay Area native who has had a long career as a music critic, and is an author of several books on music. In his afterword, he notes that “I knew better than to go to Altamont”, then offers the observations of friends who did attend (“[M]y friends knew nothing about what had really gone on. They had a good time ...”). This mirrors my own experience ... I had friends who went, and they returned speaking joyfully about “Woodstock West”. (In later years, they talked about how awful it was ... the vagaries of memory.) The book works in part as a warm-up for the movie, filling in what was largely left unreported in the film. But the movie is never far from Selvin’s mind:
That movie became the accepted account of the day, the official record of history, despite the fact that the Rolling Stones themselves were partners in the film’s production.... The story needed to be told, as fully and completely as possible. The tangled threads of the movie and the concert needed to be unbraided.
Selvin may be up to more than handing out blame, but he does make himself clear. “[W]hen all the facts are presented, it’s hard to see true responsibility lying with anyone but the Rolling Stones.” And he connects this to Gimme Shelter:
[W]hy did the Rolling Stones go through with the concert? That crucial decision – and the underlying determination that went into it – made the difference in everything that happened at Altamont. There is only one plausible reason: the final scene to the concert movie. There is no other good explanation for why Jagger and company proceeded with this concert in the days before the show as it unraveled in front of their eyes.... It is simply not true that this free concert was some magnanimous, beneficent gesture. The Stones wanted something out of the deal, and what they wanted was a big finish for their epochal movie that they hoped would document their magnificent return to glory.
What the book Altamont does is place the above in context. He doesn’t absolve everyone other than the Stones, but “The Hells Angels needed to be portrayed as they were – real people with names who were placed in a treacherous, untenable situation – not cardboard cutout villains. The role of the Grateful Dead and their ultimate betrayal by the Stones needed to be detailed.... The massive use of toxic drugs was not examined.”
So, Gimme Shelter. I have huge emotional reactions to the film every time I see it. Over the years, I have a more solid appreciation for the techniques and vision of the Maysles. But maybe "appreciation" is the wrong word, as is my reference to "Maysles". For on this watching, I decided the true artist was editor Charlotte Zwerin.
My friend Charlie Bertsch wrote a strong piece on the movie a few years ago. A big portion of that essay is devoted to refuting Pauline Kael’s take. She resisted the pull of “direct cinema”, emphasizing the “manipulative possibilities of filmmaking”. Charlie responds, “[T]he Maysles’ approach ... demands witnessing events without knowing how they will turn out”, as if this precludes the possibility of manipulation.
But Charlie also points us in the direction of what is really happening in Gimme Shelter when he rightfully praises the work of editor Charlotte Zwerin, “who earned co-director billing for the brilliant editing she did after filming was complete” [emphasis added]. He singles out scenes of Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts looking at footage from the film, which he calls “a brilliant idea for which Charlotte Zwerin gets the credit”. But if the Maysles want to fall back on "we don't stage stuff", those scenes would seem to contradict that idea. Jagger and Watts were invited, and filmed, by the filmmakers to watch the footage, which didn’t happen “naturally”.
Ultimately, the truest statement in Charlie’s piece is this: "The finished product’s success depends entirely on how the raw footage is edited together." No matter what the circumstances under which the Maysles worked, the film is made when Zwerin gets her talented hands on it. And film editing is as crucial, and as vulnerable to manipulation, as the shooting of the original footage. The Maysles may not have had a preformed idea of what they wanted the events to show, but Gimme Shelter requires that someone edit the footage. Charlotte Zwerin, whether working on her own or with the direction of the Maysles, manipulates the raw footage into the movie we see today. We can argue what Gimme Shelter is saying, but we can’t argue about the role the filmmakers had in making that statement. Michael Sragow, who Charlie quotes, is half right when he says “Gimme Shelter is not about manipulating events – it’s about letting events get away from you.” The latter part is true, which is one reason I find the movie so disturbing. But the first part is false.
Not the band, the album: Big Brother and the Holding Company. It’s the much-disdained debut, a year before Cheap Thrills hit #1.
The production is crappy. The band recorded a single in September of 1966 that did nothing, and then recorded ten more songs at the end of the year. Nothing much happened until the band blew people away at Monterey in June of 1967. By August, Mainstream Records, who had the band’s contract, finally released the earlier songs in a rather haphazard manner. The album, which contained only ten songs and ran barely over 23 minutes, contained eight of the later songs, along with the earlier single ... two other later songs were released as a single. Columbia Records then took over the band’s contract and re-released the album with all twelve songs.
As I recall, the general feeling at the time was that Big Brother and the Holding Company didn’t capture the group’s live sound. Heard today, the thin production and psychedelic guitars make the album sound a bit like a lost garage rock classic. But there probably isn’t enough Janis to satisfy the new fans who thought it was Janis Joplin and Her Band of Amateurs. Columbia did what they could. Here’s the original album cover:
And here’s the Columbia re-release:
In the meantime, the band did a short program on the local public television station just as Cheap Thrills was released that included this incendiary version of “Ball and Chain”:
The “underground” FM station took to playing this version at least as often as the one on Cheap Thrills. Meanwhile, Monterey Pop, which featured yet another fiery version of “Ball and Chain”, didn’t come out until December, and I don’t believe there was an audio version of the festival until 1992. Whatever ... both the public TV version and the Cheap Thrills version are great. (And just to show where many minds were, in Monterey Pop, the mid-song guitar break is edited out.)
At this point, that first album was almost forgotten, not a bad trick considering it was only a year old. Which is unfair, for there is some good stuff on there. “Down on Me” was an almost-hit that Janis carried with her into her solo career. “Woman Is Losers” is another good Janis showcase. “Light Is Faster Than Sound” is a cheesy pseudo-sci-fi effort. The version of the all-time classic “Coo Coo” is solid. And “All Is Loneliness” is special.
Still, it probably says something that I spent so much of this post about the first album talking about other music.
And at the wedding, I recited the lyrics to this song:
I scare myself just thinking about you I scare myself when I'm without you I scare myself the moment that you're gone I scare myself when I let my thoughts run and when they're running I keep thinking of you and when they're running what can I do?
I scare myself, and I don't mean lightly I scare myself, it can get frightening I scare myself, to think what I could do I scare myself -- it's some kind of voodoo and with that voodoo I keep thinking of you and with that voodoo what can I do?
but it's oh so so so different when we're together and I'm oh so so so much calmer; I feel better For the stars have crossed our paths forever and the sooner that you realize it the better then I'll be with you and I won't scare myself and I'll know what to do and I won't scare myself and I'll think of you and I won't scare myself and my thoughts will run and I won't scare myself
When asking yourself, “Do we really need another book about The Beatles?”, the answer should be “Yes, when it’s written by Rob Sheffield.” I can’t say I came to his books about Duran Duran, karaoke, and Bowie because I was a fan of any of those topics. But I’m a fan of Sheffield, and he has never let me down, to the point where now I care about Duran Duran et al.
Another thing I like about Sheffield is his age. He was born in 1966. The first batch of writers about rock music were of a different generation: Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau, Dave Marsh, Jaan Uhelszki, Lester Bangs, Ellen Willis. (In terms of personal influence, I’d include Ralph J. Gleason, born in 1917.) Many of them came to our attention in the 70s ... “rock criticism” didn’t quite exist until then. But they were people who had lived when The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan for the first time. Thankfully, there are many great writers about music from Sheffield’s generation: Ann Powers and dream hampton come to mind. But their perspective is drawn from the times in which they live, and with pop music, the teenage years are especially important. As an example, Sheffield was 15 when Duran Duran’s first album was released. When I was 15, the White Album was released.
So Sheffield wasn’t “there” during Beatlemania. But to the extent this distances him from the subject, he is able to offer a new look. And he makes a great case in Dreaming the Beatles that the time of The Beatles has never left us. He has lived with The Beatles for most of his life ... in the book, he describes seeing Help! when he was five (“They entered my life”), and the enthusiasm with which he writes about The Beatles to this day demonstrates how they have never left his life.
Sheffield’s books all merge with memoir, and I guess if that bothers you, you might want to look elsewhere. In this case, though, it’s even more appropriate than usual, for the reasons I’ve already stated: He was only 4 years old when The Beatles broke up, so unless he’s doing some straightforward “and then they recorded this” type of book, his personal relationship with the band is crucial. Having said that, he takes the subtitle seriously. He tells the story, not just of his own relationship to The Beatles, but to the whole world’s love affair with the group.
While he writes a lot about the relationships between the band and their fans, he also talks about the relationships within the band, and not always by simply citing biographical trivia, as when he discusses a favorite of mine, “There’s a Place”:
You can hear John woke up with a stuffy nose; you can also hear how nervous he and Paul are, their voices quavering as they stretch out the vowels, “plaaaace” and “looow” and “goooo,” Ringo urging them on with his drum crashes. It’s another Buddy Holly homage, one they wrote on their guitars in the front room of Paul’s dad’s house on Forthlin Road. John and Paul sing about escaping to the place you go when you feel low – in your mind, where you hear the voice of the girl who tells you things you want to know, the place you go to remember the things she said that swim around your head, the place you talk yourself out of the fears you wouldn’t confess to your closest male friends. Except here are John and Paul, trading off the confession out loud. It’s done and dusted in under two minutes – no time for waffling or kidding around, the voices say, this is it, this is how I feel, let’s go, let’s tell it.
It’s a close reading that doesn’t depend solely on the lyrics, it’s a close reading that encompasses the performance. This happens throughout the book ... every time he points out something going on in a particular track, you instantly want to hear it. And when someone can help you hear a Beatles’ song with a fresh ear, well, that’s a lot harder than it seems.
Sheffield spends much of the second half of the book talking about the post-Beatles years of the four lads. This makes sense, since his own relationship with the band began after they’d broken up. But it also reflects the ways The Beatles as a band are still in our dreams ... just because they weren’t together after 1970 didn’t mean they no longer mattered.
Love Is a Mix Tape may always be my favorite of his books. But Dreaming the Beatles is right up there with the others.
If you’re on Facebook, you couldn’t have missed this one. List a bunch of acts you’ve seen live, add one act you’ve never seen, and ask your Facebook friends to tell you which one is the lie. Here was my list, with Music Friday tunes attached:
blondie, gary wright, hootie and the blowfish, ike & tina turner, k.d. lang, malcolm mclaren, orchestral manouevers in the dark, paul mccartney & wings, quicksilver messenger service, sha na na, sun ra, youssou n'dour