If I were to make a list of my favorite musicians over the years, the only easy selection would be Bruce Springsteen at the top. But I wonder if perhaps I could offer a chronology of favorites over the years.
One of my first memories (meaning it is entirely untrustworthy) is being a little boy and having to get a shot at the doctor’s office. I cried and ran around the room until my dad promised I could buy an Elvis Presley 45 after we left the office. My memory is it was “Hound Dog”, although that is probably the most untrustworthy part of this whole story. Since I’m trying to concoct a chronological list of favorites, I can’t really use this memory to place Elvis in first place. I didn’t have an Elvis fixation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was merely the only rock and roller I’d heard of at that young age. I lost interest in him after that, and only really started paying attention to him after Greil Marcus’ book Mystery Train. That book took me to the ‘68 TV special, and if you want a favorite, there you are … whenever I fill out one of those “if you could pick one moment in time, where would it be” memes, I choose to be sitting in the audience as The King and his friends played in the summer of 1968. From there, I went on to write my college honors thesis on Elvis, and I’ve never lost my fascination with him. Truthfully, though, it’s the ‘68 Elvis-and-Friends sessions that affect me emotionally … everything else for me is more academic. So Elvis is a favorite, to be sure, but it’s hard to place him chronologically … 1968, when I didn’t notice him? The mid-70s, when Mystery Train came out?
I had a few 45s when I was a kid … there was Bobby “Boris” Pickett with “The Monster Mash”, Link Wray and “Jack the Ripper”, a few more that are long forgotten. The first LPs I can recall (some gifts, some bought by me) include Herman’s Hermits On Tour, Bringing It All Back Home (for “Like a Rolling Stone”, the first Dylan to grab my attention … of course, that album did not include “Rolling Stone”), and the first two American Yardbirds albums, For Your Love and Having a Rave Up with the Yardbirds. It would be accurate to say that The Yardbirds were my first “favorite” musicians. I put “favorite” in quotes because The Beatles ruled over everything by then, and I was not immune. (I can remember buying Revolver right when it came out, and someone asking me how I knew it was good before I’d even heard it. “It’s the Beatles!” was my reply.) Finally, to complete this time frame, I had an older brother who lived at home until 1964, and his tastes were very influential on me, plus he had lots of records.
The Yardbirds, “I Wish You Would” (Eric Clapton on guitar)
For the rest of the 60s, my favorites were identified more by albums than by artists, although the Beatles and Rolling Stones were always there. Representing the “San Francisco Sound” were Surrealistic Pillow, Children of the Future, Electric Music for the Mind and Body, and the first Quicksilver album. Oh, and the Firesign Theatre. But I don’t think any of these artists were favorites beyond their best albums. If I had to list a favorite, let it be Jack Casady. One album, though, made such an impression on me that it lifted the artist to a favored spot: Astral Weeks by Van Morrison. His first four solo albums (through His Band and the Street Choir) were often played, and there was plenty to like after that. I finally saw him live in 1998.
Van Morrison, “Cypress Avenue”
Not sure I had a favorite for the next few years. Listened to a lot of The Moody Blues in the late-60s. Allman Brothers. Boz Scaggs’ “Loan Me a Dime”. No, the next My Favorite came when I re-discovered Bob Dylan around about the time of Planet Waves. I had liked him since long before that, of course, and The Band was always thisclose to being a favorite … in hindsight, I don’t know if there is a double whammy I love more than Big Pink and the second album. Robin and I saw them on the Before the Flood tour, our first concert together after we were married … we saw Dylan twice more over the years, The Band once more (they were/are a favorite of hers, as well). I buried myself in Dylanology, reading everything I could find, going back to the earlier albums. Then Blood on the Tracks and The Basement Tapes followed … it was a great time to be a Dylan fan. Things went downhill after that … we saw him on the Street Legal tour, and it wasn’t the same … we didn’t see him in concert again for 20 years. It’s hard to get mid-70s Dylan on YouTube (The Band is easy to find), so here’s what I (along, I’m sure) consider the best use ever of “All Along the Watchtower”, the culmination of its use in Battlestar Galactica:
Then came Bruce … do I really need to say more? My various stories are scattered throughout this blog. My favorite of his songs after all these years is still “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”, and it was 1978 that cemented his place forever in my heart. So here’s “Rosie” from 1978:
Bruce Springsteen, “Rosalita”
Punk was probably the musical movement I most loved. Patti Smith could be on this list. But my true favorites were The Clash … it’s really not even close.
The Clash, “Safe European Home”
Lou Reed is in there, too … we saw him quite a few times then. The Velvet Underground belongs on this list, but as with Elvis, I don’t know where to place them. We listened to the first album all the time when it came out, and I was aware of the other albums. But it took a long time for me to realize that they were my favorite band, by which point they had long since broken up. The real favorites of the … what do I call it, post-punk era? College rock? Anyway, the favorites were Hüsker Dü. I would vote for the Velvets over the Hüskers overall, but in the context of this post, Hüsker Dü is the right choice. And my favorite of their songs is an easy choice. “So now sit around staring at the walls. We don't do anything at all. Take out the garbage, maybe, BUT THE DISHES DON’T GET DONE!”
Hüsker Dü, “I Apologize”
Predating Hüsker Dü by a bit (and thus throwing off the chronology a bit, but I wanted Hüsker Dü in with the punks) was their fellow Minnesotan, Prince. He would be the frontrunner if I decided I had to pick a #2 favorite. Seeing him in a small club in 1981 ranks as one of the finest concert moments of my life. For most of the 80s, he was crucial, and he has never really gone away … saw him in concert just a few years ago.
Don’t think I haven’t noticed that the above are all guys. I’ve loved many women rockers over the years, going back at least as far as Aretha in the 60s. I mentioned Patti Smith earlier … and there’s Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams, and more. But they weren’t my favorites the same way acts like Bruce and Prince were.
And then came Sleater-Kinney. I saw them for the first time in 1998, after Janet had joined the band and Dig Me Out was their most recent album. The first S-K song I can remember loving was “Good Things” from the second album, but Dig Me Out was and remains iconic for me, especially “Words + Guitar” and even more especially “One More Hour”. I don’t think I knew right away how much I would love them. It had been more than a decade since I truly obsessed over a new act … I was 45 years old in 1998, I had Bruce, I didn’t need more. But there was something about Sleater-Kinney. Their concerts were very interesting … I want to tell you what a great live act they were, but the truth is, I could barely distinguish a lot of the noise (Janet’s drums always came through, though). It’s the way they formed a real group out of three women with distinct personalities on stage. In the earlier years, Corin tended to be relatively calm, letting her colossal vocals do the work of expanding her presence to the audience. Janet was simply the best rock drummer since Keith Moon. Meanwhile, Carrie took care of the rock star charisma, and she had it in abundance, her bangs always in her eyes, her energy at once coiled and explosive. On record, Corin’s voice got my attention, and I had a fan’s crush on Janet’s drumming. But the fact was, I could barely take my eyes off of Carrie. They made seven albums, and all of them were good (sample: Christgau gave the albums grades of A-, A, A, A, A-, A, A). I made an S-K playlist for a friend … I ended up including more than 40 songs. The last album, The Woods, was arguably their best, as they released their inner Blue Cheer. And the concerts rolled on … over the course of just under eight years, I saw them 12 times. There was the time they played “Promised Land” on Bruce’s birthday, the many times they would man their own merch tables and I’d get tongue-tied in the presence of Janet.
And then they went on “hiatus” … that was in 2006, and I just about cry every time I think of it. By that point, I was 53 years old, and this time I was sure of it, I would never love another new act the way I loved Sleater-Kinney. “One More Hour” was the last song they ever played together … “i know it's hard for you to let it go, i know it's hard for you to say goodbye, i know you need a little more time”.
Sleater-Kinney, “One More Hour”
Another woman has snuck in, though … I don’t obsess over her the way I did with Sleater-Kinney, those days are indeed probably gone. But I’ve seen her five times (the second at the Fillmore, two years after I’d seen S-K there) … she’s just about the only person left not named Bruce who can get my now-61-year-old ass to a show. Pink.
Pink, “So What”
So, there’s my slightly botched timeline of my favorite musicians over the years:
Despite my Pauline Kael obsession, the biggest influences on me in terms of criticism were the first wave of rock critics. I learned about the art of criticism from Dave Marsh and Ellen Willis and Robert Christgau and Lester Bangs and, most of all, Greil Marcus. Their work informed my own, even when I moved into academia.
Over the years, things blend together. I don’t always remember specifics … at 61, I find myself hoping I’m just getting old and not turning senile. I knew about “Party Lights” first because I read about it. It hit #5 on the charts in 1962, and you might think I was unaware of most pop music then (I turned 9 in June of ‘62). But I remember many of the songs from that year: “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, “Telstar”, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do”, “Duke of Earl”, “Green Onions”, “He’s a Rebel”, “If I Had a Hammer”, “Johnny Angel”, “The Locomotion”, “Norman”, “Palisades Park”, “Sherry”, “Soldier Boy”, “Town Without Pity”, “Twistin’ the Night Away”, “Walk Right In”. And when I say I remember them, I don’t mean if you played those songs now, I’d know what they were. I mean that I can remember hearing them in 1962.
But I don’t remember “Party Lights”. I’m not sure how it got my attention … actually, thanks to the great new website devoted to Greil Marcus, I probably can identify the moment “Party Lights” came to my attention. In the 1979 version of Rolling Stone’s history of rock and roll, Marcus wrote an essay on Girl Groups. (The Marcus website informs me that the piece originated in the Village Voice in 1975, but I wouldn’t have read it then.) Here is what Marcus wrote about “Party Lights”:
There’s nothing at all to this record after the first five seconds or so, but those five seconds have enough emotion packed into them to last the average rock ‘n’ roller a whole career (which is what they did for Claudine—she never made the chart again). That beginning is The Party—house busting wide open, music sailing out the window, bottles and bodies and Buicks on the lawn, the good times rollin’ like they never did, and our girl is stuck right next door, imprisoned by her evil mother. “But mama, everybody in the Crowd is there!” Peeking through her window she can see that “they’re doing the Twist… the Mashed Potatoes!” (Must be her favorite.) Well, it doesn’t matter; she’s not getting out. But the way she wails in those first few moments is all that counts: “I see the party lights!”
I disagree with Marcus that it’s all about the first five seconds … Clark maintains her fever for the entire length of the song. What is wonderful, what is thrilling, what is astonishing to this day is how much emotion Clark puts into the simple desire to go to a party. In her singing, she expresses the anguish of every teenager prevented from doing that one thing which is more important than ANYTHING IN THE WORLD, because your mom said you couldn’t. There is the specific dismay of missing the party … there is the universal nature of her teenage lament … it’s not going too far to say Clark turns that missed party into an existential statement about lost opportunities.
And sure, it’s “just a silly pop song”, but the way Clark sings it, “just” and “silly” are completely off.
This song was #1 in the USA on September 11, 2001:
Here is Lopez' first appearance as a Fly Girl on In Living Color:
And here she is in the great My Family/Mi Familia:
The story goes that Mort Shuman had come up with a good Latin-sounding melody. He played it for his writing partner, Doc Pomus, and Doc had that melody in his mind as he worked at home that night. There was a wedding invitation somewhere … it had just come in the mail, or it was lying around, or … well, there are many stories about that invitation. Pomus looked at it, and thought back to his own wedding, to a Broadway dancer named Willi Burke. Pomus had polio as a boy, and had trouble getting around for his entire life after that. One of his fondest memories of his wedding was watching his new wife dancing with his brother. That memory came to him as he wrote the words to Shuman’s melody. At the end of the night, he wrote down the title: “Save the Last Dance for Me”.
Ben E. King was one of the “new Drifters” that were formed in 1958 after the group’s manager fired the previous members. With King, the Drifters had several memorable hits, most importantly “There Goes My Baby”. In 1960, King went solo, and was a successful artist on the R&B charts for many years, with “Stand by Me” being perhaps his most long-lasting song. When recording “Save the Last Dance for Me”, King was told the story about Pomus’ wedding by label boss Ahmet Ertegun, and he had that in mind as he sang.
The song begins with a lightly-strummed guitar and bass, with King jumping in quickly. “You can dance” he proclaims, singing alone for the moment, “Every dance with the guy who gives you the eye, let him hold you tight”. Strings rise quietly in the background as King sings, “But don't forget who's taking you home, and in whose arms you're gonna be. So darlin', save the last dance for me”.
The rest of the Drifters join in on the second verse. King needs their backing, because the man in the song is faltering a bit: “While we’re apart, don’t give your heart to anyone”. Eventually, a brief burst of strings breaks up the vocal for a moment, after which King returns to repeat to his woman, “save the last dance for me”.
There were many cover versions. Dolly Parton had an early-80s hit that sounded very much of its time, almost synth pop. Harry Nilsson included it on his mid-70s album Pussy Cats … he ruptured a vocal cord during the sessions, roughening the vocals, and the song was taken at a dirge-like pace, as if the singer might fall asleep while his beloved was on the dance floor. Even Bruce Willis gave it a try on the second of his two late-80s albums … a try, not a success.
“Save the Last Dance for Me” is an irresistible song to cover, but you aren’t just matching yourself to the beauty of the song, you’re matching yourself to Ben E. King. And you’ll always lose that one.
I can’t count the times I’ve posted a video here that features this recording. It comes from the finale of the first season of the American version of Queer As Folk. Justin is at his senior prom, with his BFF Daphne as his date, because his true love, the 30-year-old Brian, can’t commit to their relationship. Suddenly, at the prom, Brian shows up:
It’s still one of the most romantic scenes ever. And every time I’ve posted this, I’ve ended it here. But Doc Pomus and Willi Burke eventually got divorced. And that wasn’t the last scene of that first season of QAF.
This was taken in the summer of 2000:
In 1966, the song “Winchester Cathedral” was a worldwide smash, selling 3 million records. The artist’s name on the label was The New Vaudeville Band, which didn’t really exist, although one was formed for touring purposes after the record became a surprise hit. In the U.S. it hit #1, supplanting “You Keep Me Hanging On” by The Supremes. It hung around the top spot during the month of December of ‘66, taking #1 on the 3rd, relinquishing the spot to “Good Vibrations” for a week, then regaining the top for two weeks before finally being knocked out for good on the last day of 1966 by The Monkees with “I’m a Believer”.
When the Grammy Awards were given out for 1966, a year of Revolver and “Monday Monday”, the award for the Best Contemporary Rock & Roll Recording went to “Winchester Cathedral”. You can see why Robin and I had to take that picture.
The S.O.S. Band, “Take Your Time (Do It Right)”.
The B-52’s, “Private Idaho”.
Diana Ross, “Upside Down”.
The Jam, “That’s Entertainment”.
The Undertones, “There Goes Norman”.
The Clash, “Police on My Back”.
Kurtis Blow, “The Breaks”.
Bob Marley & the Wailers, “Redemption Song”.
Bruce Springsteen, “Drive All Night”.
53 years ago today, Motown released what would be their first #1 single, “Please Mr. Postman” by The Marvelettes. The lead singer was Gladys Horton, and among the players in the Funk Brothers for the recording were the great James Jamerson on bass and Marvin Gaye on drums.
The Beatles were playing “Please Mr. Postman” early enough that it’s fun to imagine the record traveling across the Atlantic in 1961. It turned up on their second album, With the Beatles, in late 1963:
The Marvelettes’ version made an appearance in a great scene from Mean Streets:
And the Carpenters had a version … oops, out of time!
I’ve often told the story of hearing the Sex Pistols for the first time at Rather Ripped Records and becoming an instant punk fan. (That’s the appropriate term, “punk fan”, since I wasn’t a punk, just a wannabe.) I had heard about the band, but I guess I hadn’t heard the band, which is why that day at Rather Ripped stood out for me.
I don’t recall the chronology, and I wouldn’t trust my memory even if I did have that kind of recall. But in those days, I was a subscriber to Rolling Stone … I think it was the only subscription I had … and their October 20, 1977 issue had Johnny Rotten on the cover. Inside was a piece by Charles M. Young that started by quoting the Book of Isaiah and closed with a shout out to Robert Frost. Young did such a great job of describing London and the Sex Pistols in 1977 that I absolutely had to see the band when they toured America. That concert, the last the band ever played with Sid Vicious, came on January 14, 1978.
The body of the story includes interviews with Johnny and Sid that humanize them in ways you don’t usually see (this is especially true in the case of Sid). Cameos are made by Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert, who were working on a Sex Pistols movie at the time (Who Killed Bambi? never came close to being completed). Elvis dies while Young in covering the band, which leads to this exchange between Young and Rotten (it makes more sense in the context of the article as a whole):
"You got any comment for the world on the death of Elvis?"
"Fuckin' good riddance to bad rubbish," he snarls. "I don't give a fuckin' shit, and nobody else does either. It's just fun to fake sympathy, that's all they're doin'."
"Is it true you used to tell people you had to cut off your piles with a razor blade?"
The biggest impression on my malleable mind (I was 24, our son had just turned two and my wife was pregnant with our daughter, who would be born the day after the Sex Pistols concert) came from Young’s description of a Pistols concert (they played under the pseudonym The Spots, because they were banned from most places).
At midnight, the Sex Pistols finally emerge from the dressing room. The crush around the foot-high stage is literally unbelievable and skirmishes with the security men immediately erupt. The ten-foot stacks of PA speakers are rocking back and forth and are dangerously close to toppling over. …
Some kid has put his fist through one of the speakers and a few more have escaped the security men to stomp on wires and knock over electronic equipment. The song is barely intelligible over the explosions and spitting noises from shorts, just the way anarchy ought to sound. The crowd pogos frantically. … Sid Vicious' bass playing is highly energetic and completely without subtlety. He's been up for two days prior to the gig and, hilariously, looks like he's trying to cop some zzz's between licks. Still clad in his swastika T-shirt, Rotten is perhaps the most captivating performer I've ever seen. He really doesn't do that much besides snarl and be hunch-backed; it's the eyes that kill you. They don't pierce, they bludgeon. …
Several burly roadies join the security men to form a solid wall in front of the band. Rotten is completely hidden from view, so he climbs on top of a monitor and grabs the mike in one hand and the ceiling with the other for balance. Someone in the balcony pours beer on him. …
Grasping a profusely bleeding nose, a kid collapses at my feet. Another pogos with his pants down. The "God Save the Queen" chorus – "No future, no future, no future for you" – sparks a similar explosion and closes the set. "No Fun" is the encore and, true to its title, blows out the entire PA.
The Sex Pistols, and Young’s description of them, made it seem like the world was changed forever. Such was the year 1977.
On Tuesday, Charles M. Young died of cancer.