The Teen Idol Era of early rock ‘n’ roll was a fascinating period, but the fascination has little to do with the music.
Although Americans believe they invented the teen idol (and everything else), they were decades late to the party. While some identify Mozart as the first teen idol, that characterization is a Hollywood fiction arising from the release of Amadeus in 1984. Franz Liszt is a far more credible candidate for the mantle of Original Teen Heartthrob, as Ken Russell and Roger Daltrey ventured to demonstrate in the film Lisztomania, with seriously mixed success. Liszt’s mini-bio on Wikipedia describes his impact on the European ladies of the era in a less bizarre, more accessible manner:
After 1842, “Lisztomania” swept across Europe. The reception that Liszt enjoyed as a result can be described only as hysterical. Women fought over his silk handkerchiefs and velvet gloves, which they ripped to shreds as souvenirs. This atmosphere was fuelled in great part by the artist’s mesmeric personality and stage presence. Many witnesses later testified that Liszt’s playing raised the mood of audiences to a level of mystical ecstasy.
Mystical ecstasy, my ass. Those broads went back to their mansions with soaked horsehair crinolines under their tepee-sized skirts.
While Liszt was a musical genius and one of the greatest pianists in history, it was his physicality that set all those buried clitorises aflutter. If you get the chance to visit the beautiful city of Budapest, take a stroll through Lizst Ferenc Square and look for his statue—you can’t miss it. On my first trip to the city, I happened to run into a group of America tourists who were also admiring Liszt in bronze. I remember one older gentleman with a Southern twang remarked, “Looks just like Jerry Lee Lewis.”
Puritan America really didn’t join the party until the Roaring 20’s, when a peculiar-looking gent by the name of Rudy Vallee became something of a teen sensation. Possessing zero erotic energy himself, he had to rely on a prop to transform flappers into melted butter. That prop was the megaphone, which oozed with symbolic bisexuality: long enough to symbolize the phallus, with a hole wide enough to accommodate the whole fraternity.
Yes, I see sex in everything.
Fast forward to the 1940’s, when a skinny little Italian guy made bobby soxers swoon to his croon. The Frank Sinatra of the 40’s was a scrawny little runt, the kind of guy you’d push into the gutter if you ran into him on the street. Somehow his voice did the trick, which will give you some idea just how fucking horny all those broads waiting for Johnny to come marching home must have been.
The common thread that links the early American teenage hearthrobs—Vallee, Crosby, Sinatra—is that they are disgustingly clean and wholesome. They just stand there and sing. They don’t shake their fannies, they don’t growl their vocals, and they would certainly never utter any vocalization that approached a scream or even hinted at a moan.
So when Elvis burst onto the scene, all hell broke loose. Pandora’s Box flew wide open and the frightening power of repressed sexual energy flooded the airwaves. Many of the great early rockers were blatantly sexual, expressing libido in faintly salacious lyrics and raucous performances. The early recordings of Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis were recordings of men on fire. Teenagers reacted accordingly and started defying long-standing societal norms, smoking before they were “old enough,” hanging out with the “wrong crowd” and ripping up the seats in movie theaters.
Both parents and the powerful were deeply alarmed. They wanted their kids to have good, clean fun! They wanted their boys to expend their despicable animal instincts on the football field or in the boxing ring! They wanted their girls to shake pom-poms, keep their cherries unpunctured and wait for the wedding night! Oh, Lord, save us from these greasy-haired minions who threaten our American way of life!
And the Lord heard the cries of the people and gave them Pat Boone. Clean-living, neatly-trimmed, cashmere-clad, lily-white down to his white bucks Pat Boone. A man perfectly qualified to bleach any traces of degenerate Negro influence from rock ‘n’ roll.
And because the Lord’s divine powers included the ability to capitalize on the stupid and fearful, he decided to become fruitful and multiply, building a veritable assembly line of squeaky-clean teen idols throughout the late 50’s and early 60’s: Ricky Nelson, Johnny Tillotson, Bobby Darin, Paul Anka, Brian Hyland, Gene Pitney. Because the Lord tuned in faithfully to American Bandstand every week, he graced the city of Philadelphia with special consideration and gave us Bobby Rydell, Fabian and Frankie Avalon. These teen idols had one thing in common: they were absolutely safe. Most of them wanted to grow up and graduate to the Easy Listening channels and become the next Sinatra. Except for Ricky Nelson and Fabian, none of them were particularly good-looking. But the Lord is nothing if not thorough, so to neutralize Fabian’s attractiveness the Lord smote his throat and rendered him incapable of carrying a tune, then entered the body of the sleeping Ricky Nelson and gave him a special tonsillectomy that robbed poor Ricky of the ability to express anything resembling an emotion. The Lord also took pity on the daughters of Eve and gave them Connie Francis, Shelly Fabares and Annette Funicello, all of whom were willing to play the role of sweet, submissive girls completely dependent on male attention to provide them with any sense of identity.
Meanwhile, the Lord, working in the usual mysterious ways, managed to get Elvis drafted in to the Army, called on Little Richard to spread the gospel, used feminine wiles to get Jerry Lee Lewis to marry his teenage cousin, and cooked up some trumped-up charges that eventually earned Chuck Berry a stretch in prison. Having smitten the fuck out of all his enemies, the Lord could now rest and listen to the angelic, boring music provided by his creations. “Venus.” “Sealed with a Kiss.” “Splish, Splash.”
Holy fucking Jesus, the Lord has powerful bad taste!
Fortunately, it turned out that the Lord was less than omnipotent and a few talented originals managed to penetrate the AM airwaves: Roy Orbison, Del Shannon and Dion DiMucci. I’ve already reviewed Roy Orbison’s magnificent contributions to music and will get to Del Shannon in short order. I chose to do Dion first because of his obvious vocal talent and because out of all the teen idols of the era, he was by far the most sexy.
And the most sexist.
There are times I want to do delightfully nasty things with Dion and there are times I want to slap him silly, like he wanted to slap Little Diane. What’s remarkable about Dion is that even while he is mouthing the most sexist shit I’ve ever heard on record, I still enjoy listening to him sing. On all of the tracks in this collection—even the stinkers—he brings everything he’s got to his performance. That energy becomes problematic when he’s singing lyrics that barely rise above the level of Neanderthal in terms of his relations with the opposite sex: his commitment to the music is so strong he sounds like he means every word he’s singing. While I realize that Dion did not have complete control over song selection, and that he was performing in an era when the norms denied women both free will and independent thought, it pisses me off that he seemed to enjoy singing that crap. He even wrote some of it, so his hands are decidedly not clean.
I can partially forgive him because in a very difficult time, Dion was one of the few who kept the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll alive with his energy. I admire his willingness to actually bend the blue notes instead of treating them as another boring step in the melody, and I certainly respect his complete commitment to his craft. This 1999 collection from Germany’s Repertoire Records is wonderful in that includes all the major hits from the Belmonts era and Dion’s solo years, but absolutely dreadful in its failure to present the songs in anything approaching chronological order. Instead of following the CD’s track order, I’m going to evaluate the songs in their proper sequence.
“I Wonder Why”: The Platters and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers brought doo-wop into mainstream white consciousness with their televised appearances in the mid-1950’s, and guys who couldn’t afford guitars embraced the genre with a passion, most notably in the Italian and Puerto Rican neighborhoods of New York. Dion was one of those kids from the Bronx with a passion for doo-wop, and his vocal talent had already earned him a recording contract with a minor label. Unfortunately, the producers paired him with a group called The Timberlanes, who were more barbershop quartet than doo-wop. Frustrated with the shotgun marriage and firmly committed to his artistic vision, he pulled together some guys from his neighborhood and started working with them to sharpen their harmonies and timing. Since all four guys lived on or around Belmont Avenue in the Bronx, naming the group The Belmonts was both convenient and an act of neighborhood pride.
Nearly sixty years after its release, “I Wonder Why” remains a fabulous listening experience. Dion’s vocal arrangement is nothing short of brilliant, and the combination of youthful enthusiasm, exceptional harmonic layering and perfect timing is breathtaking. The repetitive drum part almost seems superfluous; the group’s sense of rhythm is so strong that I almost wish they had recorded the song with finger snaps and maybe a double bass deep in the background. The alternating verses of story and nonsense syllables keep the listener’s attention focused on music and rhythm, practically begging you to add your own vocal to the mix. “I Wonder Why” was Dion and the Belmonts’ first single, and lo and behold, it entered the Top 30, peaking at #22. Shoulda made the Top 10.
“No One Knows”: Opening with the chorus melody strummed on acoustic guitar, “No One Knows” is an unusual slow dance number in that it opts for heartbreak over puppy love. Dion approaches the song with suitable emotional restraint, capturing the broken-hearted hero’s confusion and embarrassment in relation to the break-up without crossing the line into the maudlin. The Belmonts are in deep background here, providing a soft and subtle foundation for one of Dion’s loveliest vocals. The song was co-written by then-budding songwriter Ernie Maresca, who would provide Dion with some of his most chauvinistic hits. I shall flog both men for those crimes later in this review; for this song, a few well-placed love taps with a riding crop will do.
“A Teenager in Love”: Dion and the Belmonts broke into the Top 10 with a single that came close to perfection on multiple levels. The narrator’s story must have resonated with the majority of teens in the listening audience, who found it impossible to discuss sexual and emotional matters with parents or pals. Although they didn’t call it “teenage angst” in the 1950’s, “A Teenager in Love” is actually a purer and more direct expression of angst than the neurotic suicidal ramblings of the drama queen teens of the late 20th century. While the alleged psychological problems of 90’s teenagers seemed more complex due to a slew of new psychological disorders invented by drug companies to reassure often-absent parents that they were entirely within their rights to pump their kids full of dangerous drugs to make them behave, 50’s teenagers lived in a more conformist era and had more modest needs. They wanted to find a partner of the opposite sex, go to the malt shop or the burger joint, head over to the movie theater to catch a double feature, hold hands and make out . . . and maybe get to second base. When that didn’t work out as hoped, the emotional turmoil fueled by hormonal denial and the innate frustration of physiological development (periods, zits and gawkiness) made these teenagers very . . . well, sad. Just sad, okay? Don’t turn it into borderline depression or personality disorder or bipolar whatever-the-fuck—they were SAD, S-A-D, SAD! Dion’s gentle vocal and the Belmonts’ sweet and tender background vocals convey this sadness in a way that reassured teens everywhere that they were not alone when it came to disappointment in romance. “A Teenager in Love” is one of those rare iconic songs deserving of iconic status.
“Where or When”: This is where (or when) Dion and the Belmonts finally mastered the slow dance number, just in time for the Christmas shopping season. This Rodgers & Hart number has been covered by nearly everyone in the music trade, from Vaughn Monroe to Mario Lanza to Dinah Shore to Duke Ellington to Art Tatum, but only Dion and the Belmonts’ version managed to crack the top ten. The intro combining the voices of the Belmonts with a saxophone is a killer opener, and the group nails the more complex chordal harmonies during the build while carefully managing the dynamics to achieve a beautifully satisfying conclusion. “Where or When” would prove to be the high point for Dion and the Belmonts, for whenever an artist of this era produced a major hit, the record company executives would insist that the artist reproduce the formula until the well ran dry.
“When You Wish Upon a Star”: Oh, for fuck’s sake. Walt Fucking Disney songs? You have to be fucking kidding me. It was pretty obvious by now that the group’s masters wanted to rid any traces of Negro influence from the group’s sound, so why not take it one step further and connect that sound to a guy who was a hero to white people everywhere? This rather obvious attempt on the part of Laurie Records to push Dion and the Belmonts toward the easy listening channels was a relative flop, peaking at #30. The only sort-of-redeeming feature of this turkey is that Brian Wilson borrowed parts of the melody for “Surfer Girl.” Guess it didn’t take much to earn genius status in the old days.
“In the Still of the Night”: This is probably not the song you associate with the song title, which is the soulful doo-wop rendition by The Five Satins. This rendition is the Cole Porter tune of the same name, a rather ponderous ditty that Ella Fitzgerald managed to turn into a halfway decent piece of music. The fact that it’s not a cover of the doo-wop classic tells you just how far Dion and the Belmonts strayed from their roots in only two years.
There were also other problems the group had to deal with in the momentous year of 1960. Dion had checked into rehab for heroin addiction early in the year, and the group had begun to bicker over finances, musical direction and just for the hell of it. It was pretty obvious that if Dion was going to continue to pursue a musical career, he’d have to do it on his own.
“Lonely Teenager”: Dion’s first single as a solo act reached #12 on the charts, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out why. The lyrics are irritatingly repetitive and astonishingly vague about why the teen ran away in the first place. We hear him struggle over the choice to go home or stay away, but he fails to describe the pluses and minuses of either choice—only the stray line, “I know I’d be alright/If I just stay out of sight” hints at parental abuse as the possible cause for his flight to freedom.
If vagueness were the only flaw in “Lonely Teenager,” it might have been an okay single, but who the fuck were those background singers? After extensive research, I could find no trace of their identities, only the mysteriously anonymous phrase, “backing group with a female lead.” They’re fortunate to remain anonymous, because this qualifies as one of the worst vocal backgrounds in history. The vocals drip with manufactured sadness for the poor baby teenager, which is irritating enough, but their worst crime is the use of the hard “r” when they elongate the ending syllable of the chorus: lonely teen-a-JURRRRRRR. It’s really annoying in contrast with the virtually unpronounced r’s in Dion’s Bronx accent—a fingernails on the chalkboard experience par excellence.
I have no idea why Dion’s handlers didn’t take a tip from Bobby Rydell and hire first-class background singers like Dee Dee Sharp, but apparently they learned from their nearly unforgivable mistake and got it right on the next go-round—-big time.
“Runaround Sue”: After three follow-up singles that went absolutely nowhere, Dion called for a change of pace and expressed a desire for backing singers with a “rockier” sound. Enter The Del-Satins, who would continue to support Dion during his peak period—support that was largely uncredited. I don’t know whose decision it was to leave the Del-Satins languishing in undercover status, but it was a shitty thing to do. Harrumph!
Whether due to the energy of The Del-Satins or Dion’s need to rock the fuck out, “Runaround Sue” represented a major departure from his established vocal style. After a dose of old-style, sweet Dion in the morose opening lines, you hear him start to raise the temperature during the two doo-wop verses that follow. By the time the first verse rolls around, Dion is belting it out with an underlying growl that tells you the man has found both his voice and his libido. The classic Dion technique of adding an extra syllable to the end of a line (“I might miss her lips and the smile on her face-uh/The touch of her hair and this girl’s warm embrace-uh”) expresses an overflow of passion that is terribly exciting. Compared to most of the crap produced by white singers during the early 60’s, Dion’s vocal brims with fire and titillating sexuality. “Runaround Sue” is Dion’s liberation moment, when he finally began to reach his enormous potential.
Long time readers of this blog will likely assume that I might take some exception to the lyrics to “Runaround Sue,” particularly their depiction of a sexually-curious girl as a worthless slut. Hmm. Let me think about that.
No fucking shit I take exception to the lyrics! “Runaround Sue” is the ultimate expression of the ancient and stupid belief that it’s okay for men to sow their overrated oats but women have to wait for Prince Charming to get their rocks off. The narrator is a typical male whiner who can’t get over his childish belief that once he favors a lady with his attention, she becomes his personal property. Sue, who is obviously ten times more mature than this possessive little prick, tells him to bugger off. For that act alone, she serves as a role model to women everywhere who want to make their own choices and not depend upon the vagaries of the male penis for personal fulfillment. I have modeled my life after Runaround Sue, choosing to fuck whom I want when I want while being completely transparent about my motives and intent. Given all the variations in penis size, shape and behavior, it would be the height of hetero-female stupidity to hope to hit the great dick lottery on your wedding night. Women need to sample the goods as much as men do. Let’s all sow our oats in honor of Runaround Sue!
Unwittingly, Dion created one of the first heroes of the feminist movement.
“The Majestic”: Dance crazes dominated the early 60’s, and this piece was designed to give Dion some exposure to the dance crowd. The song is clunky, corny and beyond trite, and to his credit, Dion sounds rather awkward and uncomfortable about the whole thing. Released as an A-side, it kinda sorta disappeared due to a rather strong B-side . . . something called “The Wanderer.”
“The Wanderer”: If you thought I had issues with “Runaround Sue,” you can imagine my reaction to a song that celebrates the virtues of serial molesters. This guy is a total fucking L-O-S-E-R:
Oh well I’m the type of guy who will never settle down
Where pretty girls are, well, you know that I’m around
I kiss ’em and I love ’em ’cause to me they’re all the same
I hug ’em and I squeeze ’em they don’t even know my name
Whoa, dude! Women are all the same? Are we all standard-issue biological appliances? You just use us to open the door and shove things in and out, just like you manage your beer supply? And wait—are you telling me that you think you can put your filthy hands all over a woman’s body whenever when you feel like it, without even asking? Ever heard of boundaries, dude?
Later we learn that his sex addiction leads him to pursue women all over the country. Why would he waste all that gas when he believes all women are the same?
I’m the type of guy that likes to roam around
I’m never in one place I roam from town to town
And when I find myself a-fallin’ for some girl, yeah
I hop right into that car of mine and ride around the world
Dion attempted to apologize in a way for this despicable prick, but even Wikipedia could see through that pathetic attempt at bullshit:
(Dion): At its roots, it’s more than meets the eye. “The Wanderer” is black music filtered through an Italian neighborhood that comes out with an attitude. It’s my perception of a lot of songs like “I’m A Man” by Bo Diddley or “Hoochie Coochie Man” by Muddy Waters. But you know, “The Wanderer” is really a sad song. A lot of guys don’t understand that. Bruce Springsteen was the only guy who accurately expressed what that song was about. It’s “I roam from town to town and go through life without a care, I’m as happy as a clown with my two fists of iron, but I’m going nowhere.” In the fifties, you didn’t get that dark. It sounds like a lot of fun but it’s about going nowhere.
However, on Maresca’s original demo of the song, the lyrics were “with my two fists of iron and my bottle of beer”, and the change to “with my two fists of iron but I’m going nowhere” in fact seems to have been at the record company’s insistence.
There are more flaws in his mea culpa. I don’t have a problem with songs like “I’m a Man” and “Hoochie Coochie Man” because those songs are about guys strutting their stuff. Both sexes have the inalienable right to strut stuff in pursuit of sexual nirvana. Those songs are simply invitations to try a better dick than the other guy’s; they’re expressions of classic macho bravado easily tamed by any woman with an ounce of confidence and self-respect. “The Wanderer” is a fucking jerk who has no self-control and deserves several swift kicks in the nuts before heading into long-term therapy.
Putting aside my distaste for the ethical failings of the song, “The Wanderer” is a first-class vocal performance with tremendous energy. Dion is seriously on his game here, the lovable bastard, and The Del-Satins are subtly outstanding. The sax solo in the bridge, played over The Del-Satins superb vocalizations, is one of the best musical interludes of the era.
Lovers Who Wander”: Following nearly the exact same structure and melody of “Runaround Sue,” this song confirmed the basic assumption of record company executives everywhere: if you find the right formula, stick to it. Dion co-wrote the song with Ernie Maresca, so it’s obvious he bought into the formulaic dogma as well. Interestingly, I find his vocal on this song to be even stronger than his work on “Runaround Sue,” which tells you that a great performer has more leeway than the average busker when it comes to song selection.
“Little Diane”: Holy fuck, is that a kazoo? Why in the hell would they use a kazoo when they obviously had good saxophonists at their beck-and-call? That ridiculous instrument cancels any attempt to take this song about another lying slut seriously, but the lyrics show that the singer of “Runaround Sue” was now starting to lose all sense of emotional control:
Yeah, I wanna pack and leave and slap your face
Bad girls like you are a disgrace
A-way down deep inside I cry
Without you little Diane I’d die
I should drag you down ’cause you’re no good
You’re two-faced, your heart’s made of wood
A way down deep inside I cry
Without you little Diane I’d die
Dion wrote this one, so he has nowhere to hide. My read is that the narrator is in obvious denial of his desire to experience female domination, and deserves several serious whipping sessions to get his head and dick straight.
“Love Came to Me”: Dion gets back to his doo-wop roots in this easy, soulful number supported by The Del-Satins with their typical professionalism. Dion sounds particularly joyful on this piece, as if he’s just leaning his head back and enjoying the experience of singing. Dee-lighful!
“Ruby Baby”: Even changing record companies from Laurie to Columbia couldn’t end Dion’s hot streak. His sixth Top 10 hit in a row was a remake of a Drifters’ doo-wop number, and I’ll take Dion’s rendition any time. The arrangement is very clever, opening with strummed guitar supporting a pretty nimble guitar run before Dion enters the mix with the first two lines of the verse. With perfect timing, the bass vocalist enters with a descending oh-oh-oh-oh while Dion begins his melodic transition to the chord change on the third line, where percussion, Dion and Del-Satins come together as smoothly as a nice shot of Chambord. This Lieber-Stoller number is free of any insulting comments about the stronger sex, making it a completely satisfying experience.
“Sandy”: Dion understandably fell out of the Top 10 with a song that never decides what it wants to be. The song structure is awkward, with an unusual I-III-I-VII-V chorus stuck in the middle of C-Am-F-G verses. The lyrics are quite confusing: Dion jauntily dumps Sandy’s ass in the first verse; tells the story of dumping her to a third party in the next verse, while admitting “I’d crawl back if I could;” then proclaims his desperate need for her touch despite her unfaithfulness. In a very revealing line, Dion sings, “Oh, it’s worth this pain/I can’t explain.”
I can explain it, baby. Now be a good boy put this slave collar on. Mistress will come back to humiliate you later.
“This Little Girl”: Dion translates Taming of the Shrew for the less educated in a mid-tempo, relaxed doo-wop influenced piece. I find it fascinating that the men of early rock ‘n’ roll, up to and especially including John Lennon, were terrified of “being made a fool” by some girl and not embarrassed to admit it. They might have well as hung a sign around their neck reading “SUFFERING FROM CHRONIC INSECURITY—PLEASE HELP.” Nice song, but once again, Dion fell short of the Top 10.
“Be Careful of the Stones You Throw”: Dion’s dad was a country music aficionado and a huge fan of Hank Williams, bless his heart, so it isn’t all that surprising that his son would record one of Hank’s “Luke the Drifter” numbers written by an Arkansas miss by the name of Bonnie Dodd. Based on one of Jesus’ best lines, the story deals with the “bad girl on the block” (she drinks alcohol!) and how her gossipy neighbor refuses to let her play with her child . . . then one day the bad girl sacrifices her own life to save that mother’s child after the dumb kid ran into the street in front of a car. This listener hopes the mother was racked with searing, permanent guilt for the rest of her miserable existence. The almost holy feel of the song, intensified by spoken word intervals, was a major departure for Dion, but like nearly every other song he touched, he handled it like a pro.
“Donna the Prima Donna”: Hey, Dion’s new song just came out! I wonder what this one’s about? A girl with “roving eyes?” No kidding! Wow! How utterly fucking original of him!
While Dion continues to beat his metaphorically hairy chest in his never-changing role of the guy terrified of being played for a fool, “Donna the Prima Donna” does differ from the other slut songs in Dion’s catalogue in that he takes nearly sadistic pride in skewering her for her pretensions:
I remember the nights we dated,
Always acting sophisticated,
Talking about high society,
Then she tried to make a fool out of me . . .
She always wears charms, diamonds, pearls galore,
She buys them at the 5 & 10 cents
She wants to be just like Zsa Zsa Gabor,
Even though she’s the girl next door.
Gee, I kinda feel sorry for Donna. Most of the kids I knew had all kinds of pretensions about what they wanted to be someday; I think it’s part of the teenage experience to try on different personalities like one would try on costumes for Halloween. Better to let her figure it out for herself than suffer the pain of humiliation through behind-the-back whispers. Despite the return of the slut theme, the song returned Dion to the Top 10, so what the fuck do I know.
“Drip Drop”: This is a semi-novelty song in an era in love with novelty songs. I loathe them all. Another Drifters cover of a Leiber-Stoller composition, I can’t dispute the quality of Dion’s vocal, but I’m simply turned off by a song based solely on onomatopoeia.
“Drip Drop” would be Dion’s last trip to the Top 10 for five years: The British Invasion and his decision to explore the blues relegated Dion to temporary obscurity. During the period from 1964-1967, his most significant public exposure arose from his inclusion on the cover of Sgt. Pepper. In 1968 he found himself transformed by an intense religious experience and returned to rehab in another attempt to rid himself of heroin addiction. Fortunately, he hadn’t burned his bridges when he left Laurie for Columbia, and Laurie agreed to sign him to a contract under the condition that he record a song called “Abraham, Martin and John.”
“Abraham, Martin And John” Written by a guy whose only “credit” to his name was the ridiculous Royal Guardsmen hit, “Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron,” “Abraham, Martin and John” put Dion back into the Top 10 and resuscitated his career. While I have serious issues with the helplessness implied in the cliché theme of “only the good die young,” I have no quarrel with Dion’s sensitive and sincere performance. He sounds great, imbuing the song with a hint of his R&B roots to give it a slight gospel feel.
Dion’s life did not end in 1968. Throughout much of the 70’s he wore the singer-songwriter mantle, and while his efforts did not translate into commercial success, he gained the respect of contemporaries like Pete Townsend for his album Born to Be with You. At the end of the decade he became a born-again Christian and sung about his evangelical beliefs through much of the 1980’s. After he agreed to perform his classic numbers at Radio City Music Hall in 1987, he drifted back into the rock scene, and continues to record and perform to this day.
Dion’s influence can hardly be underestimated. As Lou Reed noted in speech inducting Dion into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, “He has the chops, and he practically invented the attitude.” At a time when everyone else was following marching orders to lose the attitude, Dion kept the flame alive long enough for The Beatles to enter the picture and restore rock ‘n’ roll to its pre-eminent status as the music that never dies. For that, I can easily forgive all his early misogyny and embrace him as one of the greats of rock ‘n’ roll.
I knew my dad had the original vinyl version of Dance Album in his collection, so my partner and I decided to drop by one evening to see if listening to Carl Perkins in analog format would motivate us to kick off our pumps and trip the light fantastic. We love to dance together, both sexually and asexually . . . but the asexual dancing frequently turns sexual . . . let’s get on with the story.
As we walked down the hill to my parents’ place, I gave her some background about the featured performer. I explained that Carl Perkins was one of the early progenitors of rock, approaching the emerging genre from the country side and helping to popularize a hybrid form called rockabilly. As she had grown up in Madrid and had spent only a few years in the States, she hadn’t delved much into American culture and music and had never heard of rockabilly. “I like that word,” she said, and repeated it over and over again with a trilled “r” that made us both shake with laughter.
We were still laughing when we arrived at our destination, but managed to pull ourselves together after some wine and cigarettes. My dad had already taken the album from the shelf, and between sips, I spent some time poring over the cover, a cut-and-paste job to die for. I marveled at Carl’s decapitated noggin suspended eerily within the head of an eighth note. I smirked at the napless blue suede shoes bearing his first and last name, one name per shoe. I wondered whether the cloth patterns that filled the notes and the right side of the cover were herringbone, twill or Glen plaid, like you see in Pee Wee Hermans’ suits. My partner leaned over and asked if Carl’s hands were as monstrous as pictured in the performance caricature (they were—he cradled a Les Paul like I would handle a ukulele). As we lingered over the shifting positions of the dance pairs with their the accompanying motion lines, my still-adolescent father interrupted my reverie.
“Hey! That girl in the upper right is shooting beaver!” Dad pointed out with glee.
My partner pulled the cover close to her eyes and saw nothing but a dancing girl whirling in a skirt. “You tricked me! She doesn’t have a gun!”
My dad laughed and said, “I guess you never heard of shooting beaver. It’s an American slang term.”
“Why don’t you explain it to her, dad?” I suggested, a touch of malevolent anticipation in my voice.
Even though he knew he was talking to two perpetually horny bi chicks with no sense of shame, my veteran-of-the-free-love-movement father actually blushed. “Uh, shooting beaver is when a girl accidentally spreads her legs so you can see her underwear,” mumbled my father, wringing his hands in agony.
“I don’t understand—was that something important enough to give it a name?” my partner asked in genuine puzzlement.
“Well, yeah. When I was a kid, girls couldn’t wear skirts above the knee, so it was hard to get a peek down there.”
“And why would you want to do that—see underwear?”
“I don’t know, it was kind of an achievement,” my dad said, sheepishly.
“I see. I think I understand,” replied my partner, starting to put it all together. “And how many beavers did you shoot?” she asked.
“No, the girl shot the beaver, not the guy.”
“Oh, now I see. In this case, ‘shot’ means ‘giving someone a look-see’,” she surmised.
“Bingo. Hey! Why don’t you look it up—it’s got to be on the Internet by now.”
I pulled my iPad out of my purse and googled “shooting beaver.” Of the first ten results, nine were tips for hunters on how to blast those industrious little cuties into oblivion. The Urban Dictionary had what I was looking for, but the answer opened the door to another line of questioning.
shoot beaverOf a girl or of a woman, to flash by spreading one’s thighs, while seated wearing a skirt or a dress, in such a way as to reveal one’s crotch or camel toe, whether on purpose or by accident.
If you really want to get a guy’s attention, shoot beaver.
That chick behind us is shooting beaver. Take a look.
“Dad, what the fuck is a camel toe?”
“Huh? Haven’t heard of that one.”
I googled “camel toe.”
camel toeWhen a woman’s pants are so tight, that the actually fabric comes into their beaver, creating the two-mounded image of a camel’s toe.Oh man, her pants were on so tight, that I could see her camel toe.
Wikipedia provided pictures to demonstrate the likeness:
“Shit, dad! You’ve ruined our sex life! Now every time we go down on each other we’re going to smell camels!”
My partner leaned over and semi-whispered for all to hear, “That’s why they make perfume—so we don’t smell the camels.”
We all had a good laugh, and by the time we got home that night she and I would forget all about the camels.
But that’s a whole ‘nother story. My dad played the album while we both waited for the music to tickle our camel toes to the point where we had to get up and dance. Using the Camel Toe Factor to evaluate Carl’s performance, I am pleased to report that Carl Perkins managed to inflate our camel toes 10 out of 12 times, a Camel Toe Rating of 83.3—a score that would easily win the “Rate-a-Record” segment on American Bandstand.
Translation: It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.
Carl Perkins is one of those guys who never got the credit he deserved. Although he wrote and introduced the world to “Blue Suede Shoes,” most people still identify the song with Elvis, ignoring the fact that Carl’s version outsold Elvis by a landslide. Three of his compositions—“Matchbox,” “Honey Don’t,” and “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby—are primarily associated with The Beatles, not Carl Perkins. Few people realize that when you listen to most of George Harrison’s solos during the Beatlemania phase from Please Please Me to Help!, you’re hearing someone doing his best to imitate Carl Perkins. He ran into some bad luck early in his career (a serious car accident removed him from the public eye just as he was ready to break out from the pack), and had some self-inflicted issues with booze that nearly took him out of action for good. Carl was a damned fine singer, and while his picking style wasn’t as melodic or fluid as a Chet Atkins, he knew how to make that guitar rock.
Just like its cover, the Dance Album of Carl Perkins was patched together in a hurry. Carl had decided to move from Sun to Columbia and Sam Phillips wanted to wring every last dollar out of the Carl Perkins material in his possession. Sam slapped together his favorite cuts from the vault and gave the collection a title that he hoped would resonate with the dance-crazy teens of the time. It didn’t, and the album languished in relative obscurity for decades until an expanded version hit the shelves in 2004. Although that deluxe edition adds “Pink Pedal Pushers,” one of my favorite Carl Perkins performances, I always prefer to review the original versions of albums to remain true to the historical record and to try to experience what listeners experienced during the original go-round.
I now ask you to join me and my gal, one dressed in pedal pushers and the other in capris, one with a pony tail and the other with a flip, our faces powdered with a Max Factor Creme Puff and our nails glowing in Revlon’s Frosted Pink Cloud, as the whole gang gathers around a 3-speed Majorette portable record player to rock out with Carl!
“Blue Suede Shoes”: We’re out of our chairs in seven seconds, as soon as Carl belts out “Now, go, cat, go!” The greatest rockabilly song of them all combines a butt-shaking boogie beat with the excitement of stop-time verses that end on a rising line with a blue note peak that lift you onto the dance floor and inspire you to show the gang what you’ve got. The pattern of freeze-shift-freeze-shift allows you to strike all sorts of inviting poses to give your adolescent lover the tingles in his torpedo and invoke deep feelings of envy from your gum-popping girlfriends. The decision to add an extra beat to the first few measures to increase the sense of anticipation makes the intro to “Blue Suede Shoes” the equivalent of perfectly-executed foreplay. God damn, what a great song!
Carl’s version combines rhythmic discipline with just the right amount of energy, and though “Blue Suede Shoes” gives a vocalist plenty of opportunities to overdo it, Carl gives his vocal just the right amount of gas. In contrast, Elvis’ version has always felt jittery to me, as if he let the song excite him too much. I don’t blame Elvis—if you’re a singer, “Blue Suede Shoes” is one of those songs you can’t wait to sing, and he probably felt like the guy who can’t wait for Saturday night and his hot date with the girl who’s been giving him wet dreams all week. By the time Saturday rolls around, all he’s got left is nervous energy and a whole lot of sticky underwear to explain to mom. I think the reason Carl’s version is so obviously superior is that the recording is essentially flash-frozen. He recorded “Blue Suede Shoes” two days after he wrote it, and nailed it on take two, giving the performance an astonishing immediacy and everlasting freshness.
“Blue Suede Shoes” not only rocks and rolls but offers keen insight into the fragile psychology of American youth. Carl wrote the song after witnessing a guy verbally abusing his date for accidentally planting a scuff mark on his prized blue suede shoes. According to his bio Go, Cat, Go!, he watched the scene with fascination: “Good gracious, a pretty little thing like that and all he can think about is his blue suede shoes.” “Blue Suede Shoes” mocks the distortion of identity in an other-directed, consumer-oriented society, pointing out the shallowness of a life obsessed with presentation. Back in the 50’s such behavior in teenagers would have been considered a passing phase that they would grow out of thanks to wise TV fathers like Jim Anderson and Ward Cleaver. Thirty or so years later, kids would start murdering other kids for their Air Jordans.
“Movie Magg”: Danceable, but only if you ignore the 2/4 beat and pretend it’s 4/4, allowing you to smooth out the rhythm so you can give your partner an elegant spin or two. The story is pure hillbilly, as Carl dreams all week of taking Maggie to the picture show if he can just get past her father and his double-barreled shotgun. Interestingly enough, he carries Maggie away on a horse instead of a DeSoto, narrowing the target demographic for this song to teenagers living in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia. “Movie Magg” does feature some of Carl’s most fluid picking—his solos tend to be more like enhanced rhythm guitar than virtuoso leads.
“Sure to Fall”: What the fuck happened to my dance party? What’s this White Christian People music doing on my dance album? Far more billy than rock-a, “Sure to Fall” falls firmly into the country category—so much so that The Beatles’ version on Live at the BBC doesn’t sound at all like The Beatles but like the first warm-up act on an off-night at the Grand Ole Opry. “That’s a real nice song you got there, Otis,” somehow seems like an appropriate response.
“Gone, Gone, Gone”: This song has been ransacked like an Egyptian tomb. Gene Vincent would borrow the opening “We-lllll” for “Be-Bop-a-Lula.” You can hear fragments of the guitar solo in several early George Harrison contributions. The feel and the subject matter—fat broads—are very reminiscent of Ray Davies’ “Skin and Bone.” “Gone, Gone, Gone” is a catchy blues based rocker with definite danceability, but it would not reach its potential for another thirty years when Carl Perkins performed it live with a couple of itinerant musicians named Clapton and Harrison. Watch this video and then try to tell me that old guys can’t get it up!
“Honey Don’t”: The Beatles’ version is pretty faithful to the original other than a few lyrical variations. The big difference is in the vocal—Carl’s voice is clearly more expressive than Ringo’s. In Carl’s version, you can visualize him, hands-on-hips, occasionally smacking his forehead in confused frustration as his wayward girl refuses to play by the rules. That’s right, baby! You get your ass out on a Saturday night and shake it ’till the cows come home! I love how Carl manages the guitar in this one, focusing his energies on the rocking rhythm instead of trying to pattern something after the melody.
“Only You”: The Platters’ version is the gold standard, but I think Carl’s version has more raw passion, making his expression of devotion more credible than Tony Williams’. My only criticism is that he plays it a bit too fast to make it a credible slow dance number. Whether you’re going tit-to-tit or pecker to camel toe, you need a slow, oozing rhythm so you can ease into those warm nooks and crannies.
“Tennessee”: Listen—I have no problem with a song that honors the musical offerings of the Volunteer State, for Tennessee has made significant contributions to music in several genres: country, rock, jazz, blues and bluegrass. Both Nashville and Memphis have been music meccas for decades (though this is less true with Memphis today). I do have two issues with “Tennessee,” though. First, Carl only sings about country music played in that “old hillbilly way,” entirely ignoring the Memphis side of the story. The second issue is a verse that is so out of place that it’s the musical equivalent spreading your legs for an eye exam. Prior to the appearance of this ghastly stanza, the lyrics are entirely focused on the musical wonders of the great state of Tennessee. There is nothing about the Great Smoky Mountains, nothing about Civil War battle sites, nothing about Andy Jackson’s Hermitage—nothing to indicate that the song is about the many delights awaiting the tourist who’s thinking about spending their next vacation in Tennessee. So it comes as a tremendous shock to the listener when Carl slips in the following verse:
They make bombs they say that can blow up our world dear
Well a country boy like me I will agree
But if all you folks out there will remember
They made the first atomic bomb in Tennessee
What the fuck? I can see the travel brochure now: “Come for our music but stay for the radiation!” As weird as this may seem, the mid-1950’s were a period of “nuclear optimism” when people believed that the atomic bomb would make all other weapons obsolete, that everything would be nuclear-powered and electricity for the home would be cost-free, that we could nuke our food to make it last longer, we could irrigate the deserts, drive nuclear-powered cars . . . holy fucking Jesus and Jemima, what were these people thinking? I’ll give Carl credit for capitalizing on a fad, but subtract 10 points for a complete lack of foresight.
“Right String Baby, But the Wrong Yo Yo”: Okay, read the title of this song and try to guess what it inspired me to do. Oh, shoot, you got it on the first guess! I researched the history of yo-yos! I learned all about translational and rotational kinetic energy, studied the different shapes and read about all the tricks you can do with a yo-yo. But the most fascinating tidbit I came across was that yo-yos were quite fashionable accessories for ladies in 18th century France! Just the thing I need to complete my look! An emerald green Duncan Imperial would highlight my emerald green eyes and make me completely irresistible! I mean, who on earth hasn’t been totally turned on by the sight of a woman doing “walk the dog” and “around the world?” Hubba hubba!
Back to the music, “Right String Baby, But the Wrong Yo-Yo” is a lively little number with long instrumental sections featuring some nice guitar work by Carl and a superb contribution from the stand-up bass. The arrangement is country-tinged and snappy, giving you lots of opportunity to strut your stuff on the dance floor or in the barn, as the case may be.
“Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby”: Carl reworked a song from the 30’s to create this gem about a guy who is riding high with the ladies. Enjoy it while you can, brother! We shall overcome! Carl uses the delayed stop-time technique he used in the opening verse of “Blue Suede Shoes,” and it works like a charm. He really gets things going with some vibrato bends in the second solo, clearly demonstrating the virtue of those big, beautiful hands. Again, the Beatles’ version is quite faithful to the original, and though George sings it with verve and excitement, Carl makes it sound like the broads are pounding on the window to the recording studio trying to get their hands on a piece of Perkins.
“Matchbox”: I’ve always felt that “Matchbox” was the best of the Beatles’ Carl Perkins covers because they performed it with ferocious intensity. The original is somewhat smoother but hardly lacking in intensity—shit, when you’ve got Jerry Lee Lewis on piano, your song is going to fucking rock! “Matchbox” has an unusual history, with fragments of similar lyrics found in songs by Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Billie Holiday. The story behind the Carl Perkins version is that he’d never heard the alternative versions before and that his father supplied him with some stray lyrics from those older songs to get his creative juices flowing. Since the greatest poet in the English language ripped off most of his material from Petrarch, we can give Carl Perkins the same consideration we give Slick Willie Shakespeare. As a dance song, “Matchbox” is an absolute boiler, two minutes of nonstop intensity as close to climax as you can get.
“Your True Love”: “Matchbox” is a killer song, but my partner and I picked this track as our favorite dance number on the album. The combination of the steady boogie beat (Jerry Lee on the 88’s!), the tight call-and-response vocals, the nice-and-easy harmonies and one of Carl’s most expressive and sexy vocals put “Your True Love” at the top of our list. The song also has more chord movement than the other songs on the album, making it a nice pick-me-up number. Incredibly, “Your True Love” was paired with “Matchbox” in one of the greatest 45’s in history . . . and only made it to #67. I guess all that radioactivity from those a-bomb tests must have fried a few brains.
“Boppin’ the Blues”: I was totally blown away when I watched an episode of Tex Ritter’s Dance Ranch Party and heard Tex introduce Carl by telling the audience “We’d like to vary from our western songs and bring the youngsters a little bit of be-boppin’ music.” Carl Perkins did be-bop? Huh? For me, “bop” and “be-bop” are jazz terms describing the anti-swing revolution driven by Charlie Parker—music that was purposely designed to discourage dancing. I had no idea that “boppin'” also meant “dancing to popular music.” So, to “bop the blues” means “to dance to blues music,” or at least blues-influenced music like rock ‘n’ roll or rockabilly.
My partner and I bopped the hell out of this one! It’s a 12-bar blues number with a kick, and Carl’s in full command of voice, Les Paul and his supporting cast, urging the boys on with “Bop, cats, bop!” The song features one of the early interventions from the medical profession, and in this song, just like in the Rascals’ “Good Lovin'” and many others, the doctor is as useless as tits on a nun:
Well, the doctor told me, Carl you need no pills.
Yes, the doctor told me, boy, you don’t need no pills.
Just a handful of nickels, the juke box will cure your ills.
But my favorite line in the whole song is “I must be rhythm-bound.” I’m thinking tattoo, folks . . . something with a guitar in bondage. I already have a tattoo on my ass, and while that may inspire my love interests, I don’t have anything on my body that inspires me. I am the essence of rhythm-bound!
Carl Perkins caught a lot of bad breaks in his life, but somehow the man kept rocking all the way up to his death. When you listen to Carl Perkins, you hear clearly how the music of different racial and cultural traditions can all come together—a hybrid form of music that turns simple chord patterns into magic. I don’t know if it’s psychologically possible to miss things that disappeared decades before you were born, but I miss the jukebox, the dance party and the primitive technology that could turn wax into sound. There is something about that less-complicated time that is terribly appealing when compared to the high-tech, high-stress, high-speed world of today. I’m quite aware that the 50’s were no picnic—America was a land of segregation and deep-seated racism, a powerful empire afflicted with communist paranoia, and completely dismissive of women who wanted to do anything but make babies and cakes. But beneath all that ugliness were some beautifully simple moments that centered around music—having your friends bring their 45’s over to share at an impromptu dance party, kids and parents trying to master the latest dance craze, or spending a whole afternoon at the record store because it was the coolest place in town. I only know about these things from stories handed down from my elders and from the historical record of the era, but I yearn for a life full of beautifully simple moments that I could take time to treasure.
The Dance Album of Carl Perkins is full of those moments—beautiful, simple and an absolute gas. Go, cats, go!