We looked down the river and we seed the British come
And there must have been a hundred of ’em beatin’ on the drum
—Johnny Horton, “The Battle of New Orleans”
My dad had told me the story a hundred times before, but just like a little kid, I wanted to hear it again. This time I recorded it:
“It was December 1963, so the assassination still weighed heavily on everyone. You’d go to school every morning and the first thing you’d see were the flags at half-staff, so it was never far from your mind. I remember how quiet people were during that time, and how weird it all felt. The stores had decorated for the Christmas season but it seemed like no one had their hearts in it. Before Dallas, everyone knew what life was all about, and then this horrible thing happened that didn’t make any sense. We lost something more than a president—we lost our sense of direction, a sense of hope. The future seemed uncertain.
“Anyway, my dad watched Huntley and Brinkley religiously every night before dinner, and I’d usually stretch out on the floor in front of the TV and watch it with him. It was sometime around Christmas—the tree was still up, but I don’t remember if it was before or after—and towards the end of one of the broadcasts they aired a report from their London correspondent about Beatlemania sweeping the country. It was a short piece—only a minute or so—but they showed the screaming girls, the queues to get tickets, and a few seconds of concert footage with everybody going crazy. The Beatles just flashed by—the image in my mind is three guys with guitars and their hair brushed down in front with a drummer in the back—but I couldn’t hear the music with all that screaming going on. What I do remember is after the piece aired, the cameras went back to Huntley and Brinkley for the “Good night, David, good night, Chet” routine and they were both smiling. I can’t tell you how rare that was—these guys hardly ever smiled, and the news had been pretty grim for a while. But there they were, smiling, shaking their heads about this crazy shit going on in Jolly Olde England.
“I don’t know if I really felt it back then, but I’ve always looked back at that moment as the first sign of hope that things were going to get better.”
My dad was one of the 73 million Americans tuned into The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday, February 9, 1964. “It changed my life. It changed a lot of people’s lives. My buddies and I started speaking in shitty British accents, calling things ‘fab’ and ‘gear,’ and everybody wanted to start a band. Shit, here was a son of Irish immigrants wanting to be a Brit! That was a major liberation moment for me! That summer I grew my hair longer—they still had rules about hair length in school those days, so I had to cut it off in September—and I bought every British single I could get my hands on. My parents were okay with the whole thing—you know how much they love music, and that first year The Beatles kept coming out with one great song after another with those beautiful harmonies mom and dad loved.
“The Beatles lifted that pall that had hung over America after JFK died. They made life fun again.”
If you knew nothing about The British Invasion, you could have figured it out simply by looking at my dad’s 45’s in chronological order. Before “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the only British music in his collection is Lonnie Donegan’s “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?” That song might have been the only bit of British music you could find in American homes, as culture-crossing was a relatively rare phenomenon in American popular music. Cliff Richard and the Shadows never made it in the States, and though The Singing Nun and Kyu Nakamoto had recently pierced the cultural barrier, they were one-shot wonders and none of their countrymen or women followed in their footsteps. The Beatles kicked the door wide open and later that year Peter & Gordon, Manfred Mann and The Animals all topped the charts, with The Dave Clark Five, The Kinks, The Searchers, Dusty Springfield and Chad & Jeremy penetrating the Top 10. Dad has them all, and except for Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman,” The Beach Boys’ “I Get Around,” Mary Wells’ “My Guy,” Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street,” The Shangri-Las “Leader of the Pack” and three hits from The Supremes, his collection contains no American 45’s released in the period between February and December 1964, when local heroes The Beau Brummels released their first single.
Just as they were at the time of Pearl Harbor, the Americans were completely unprepared for foreign invaders and needed time to retool the music industry. Remove the Brits from the 1964 charts and you’ll find very little American rock because very few industry moguls believed there was a market for it. The Americans still did well chart-wise, but some of the names that helped keep them competitive are as far away from rock as I am from claiming virginity. Louis Armstrong in the deep twilight of his career. Dean Martin with “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime.” Lorne Greene of Bonanza fame with the Western talkie, “Ringo.” And the insipid Bobby Vinton—twice! At the start of the year Bobby held the #1 spot for four weeks before The Beatles threw him out on his pathetic little ass with “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and you would have thought that would have been the end of it. But just like the monster in a bad sci-fi sequel, he came ba-a-a-ck with “Mr. Lonely” towards the end of the year.
Somebody should have plunged a stake into his overactive heart.
I would apologize on behalf of my father for the inexcusable gaps in his collection, but the truth is he’s pretty happy with the choices he made and so am I. The British Invasion restored rock ‘n’ roll to prominence and opened up dozens of unforeseen pathways to new possibilities in music. It was an incredibly exciting development in music history.
The Americans did make a comeback of sorts in 1965 thanks to Mr. Zimmerman and the flood of acts who based their careers on covering his songs. The most notable gaps in dad’s 1965 collection are chart-topping wonders Petula Clark, Gary Lewis & The Playboys and Sonny & Cher (together or separate).
Once again, I’m in complete agreement with his choices, but I would have loved to take a shot at “Laugh at Me.”
I’ve already covered all The Beatles’ singles . . . as well as those from The Kinks, The Animals, Herman’s Hermits, The Hollies, Roy Orbison, The Beach Boys, Them, The Who, The Byrds, The Temptations, The Miracles, The Supremes, Martha & The Vandellas, The Shangri-Las . . . as well as several from The Stones and Yardbirds. “What’s left?” you query. “Oodles!” I reply, giggling gidgetly.
So, grab a can of Schlitz from your Frigidaire, crack it open with that newfangled pull tab (be careful not to cut yourself!), head into the living room, avoid the temptation to tune into another laugh-filled episode of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., lean back in your Barcalounger, light up a Viceroy (recommended by dentists!) and get ready to listen to the sweet sounds of revolution through the dual speakers on your newfangled Zenith console stereo . . . in mono.
We’ll set the stage by starting with one of the most popular acts of the early 60’s . . . a slice of Jersey Boy Americana to warm your cockles before the British come marching in.
“Dawn (Go Away),” The Four Seasons, January 1964: Although I bemoan the excessive use of male falsetto during an era when there were plenty of seriously hot female singers who could have handled the high notes, I’m rather fond of The Four Seasons. Even the casual listener can appreciate their consummate professionalism, thoughtful arrangements and vocal capabilities. Dad has several Four Seasons records in his collection, and “Dawn” is my favorite, with “Rag Doll” a close second. The two songs are virtual twins, dealing with the shame of class differences and the stigma of poverty. Here the male half of the relationship is embarrassed by his lower-class limitations; in “Rag Doll,” Bob Gaudio’s lyrics allowed Frankie Valli to defend a poor girl from the heartless shaming that has grown into a sick teenage tradition in the United States. What gives “Dawn” the edge for me is the rhythmic change in the “Think!” passages and the perfectly executed build-up to the clinching line, “Think what the future would be with a poor boy like me.” I tear up every time I hear it. The drumming on “Dawn” is equally impressive, with drummer Buddy Saltzman eschewing cymbals and accentuating that rhythmic change with solid fills.
“Needles and Pins,” The Searchers, March 1964: Gosh, I remember this from my childhood—vividly! I was about five or six years old when I heard this song on the living room stereo, and when it was over, I ran through the house looking for my mother. “Maman, I learned a new word!” I shouted with glee. “Oh, what word might that be?” she asked. “Pinza!” I cried. “Pinza? What does that mean?” mother responded with narrowed eyes. “I don’t know,” I replied, “But I found it all by myself!” and stamped my feet in pride. My mother still looked confused and asked me to show her where I found the word. I took her hand, led her to the living room and pointed at the cassette player, where a tape of dad’s 45’s was playing. Maman picked up the plastic case, scanned my father’s handwriting on the insert and no doubt smiled to herself. Instead of telling me what a dumb shit I was, she squatted down to my level and said, “Oh, yes, now I remember! Pinza is a word that means anything you want it to be! It’s a very rare and special word and you’re a very lucky girl to find it.” I beamed with pride, and for the next year or so I used the word pinza to explain, describe or imagine many things. “I think that mean boy is a pinza,” “I wonder what the pinzas are doing tonight,” and “Careful, watch out for the pinzas!” Maman must have let dad in on the secret, because he played along right from the start, especially when watching sports on TV. “Krukow, you goddamn pinza, put the ball over the fucking plate!”
Thank you, Mike Pender, for the vocal affectation that changed my life.
The Searchers were generally a pretty good band limited by their dependence on other people’s songs. “Needles and Pins” was written by Jack Nietzsche and Sonny Bono, for fuck’s sake, and they would go on to cover songs by Jackie DeShannon and old standbys Leiber and Stoller. And although that guitar sure sounds like a Ric 12, it’s really two six-string guitars playing in unison. Fake Ric, curious phrasing and squeaky drum pedal aside, “Needles and Pins” is one pinza of a song.
“Bad to Me,” Billy J. Kramer & The Dakotas, April 1964: Geez, Mr. Martin, could you have made the intro just a teensy bit louder? I just sat down to listen to the goddamn 45 and now I have to get up and adjust the volume knob so I can hear what the hell Billy J is singing! Harrumph! Once we get past that rare error by the late and lamented Sir George, we hear a lovely, melodic pop number written entirely by John Lennon while on his allegedly scandalous-but-sodomy-free holiday in Spain with Brian Epstein. If you’ve heard the bootleg demo of the song with John at the mike, you’ll likely agree with me that the decision to give this song to Billy J was spot-on. Billy J was a fine, if somewhat traditional, pop singer with a nice feel for melody and vocal dynamics—and while John probably could have pulled it off with a little practice, I’d rather hear him sing the sturdier stuff. All in all, a great little tune that is so British Invasion.
“A World Without Love,” Peter & Gordon, May 1964: The Beatles’ early successes motivated John and Paul to get serious about songwriting, and they came up with more great songs in a shorter period of time than any songwriting duo in history. This is not one of those songs—Paul wrote it when he was sixteen and gave it to the brother of his main squeeze because he didn’t think it was good enough for The Beatles.
Ah, that I could write one throwaway song as good as “A World Without Love.” Like many Beatle songs of the era, both high and low harmonic lines are strong enough to serve as main melodies, and Peter and Gordon’s close harmonies are quite lovely. As for the Rickenbacker riff that certifies the song as bona fide British Invasion . . . sorry, it’s a Vox 12-string.
“Wishin’ and Hopin’,” Dusty Springfield, June 1964: Dusty Springfield took a Dionne Warwick b-side version of a Bacharach-David song and turned it into a magical experience. This is not an easy song to sing, with shifting metrical feet requiring the singer to carefully manage her breathing and be ready to soar at a moment’s notice. When Dusty takes flight in the bridge sections, chills run up and down my spine, and when she returns to the series of spondees (wishin’-hopin’-squeeze-him-please-him) I’m stunned that she could reassert her discipline so quickly. “Wishin’ and Hopin'” is obviously one of my favorite vocals ever, an inspiring example of a singer finding her voice and coming into her own.
“The Girl from Ipanema,” Astrud Gilberto, Joao Gilberto and Stan Getz, June 1964: No, no, no and no! The single version cuts out all of Joao Gilberto’s vocal, leaving us only with Astrid’s. Not that I don’t love Astrid’s cool and sensuous vocal, but hey—I’m bisexual! I have the inalienable right to hear both vocals! And whether it’s Continental or Brazilian, Portuguese is a very sexy language, especially when spoken by men! Screw the single—get the Getz/Gilberto album and hear all of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s marvelous jazz/bossa nova compositions PLUS the full, 100% certifiably gen-u-ine, Real McCoy version of “The Girl from Ipanema.”
Time for a mid-series rant. 45’s are really starting to piss me off! I hate that little doohickey that you have to pop in the hole just so you can fucking play two and a half minutes of music before you have to get out of your comfy chair and turn the little fucker over. That’s not enough time even for a third of a cigarette! Then you have to take the little doohickey out and pop it into the next one because your father is too cheap to buy a stack of doohickeys and too nostalgic to buy a simple, solid round plastic adapter that he could slip down the spindle AND NEVER HAVE TO TO DEAL WITH DOOHICKEYS AGAIN!
Sometimes I have to share with my readers the pain and anguish I am forced to endure to bring you these reviews.
“You’re My World,” Cilla Black, July 1964: Brian Epstein did all he could to make Cilla a credible star, but the truth is she wasn’t that good of a singer in the first place and owed her very brief American success to the strength of the Invasion. In the first two verses, we find Cilla stiffly singing in the lower part of her register, trying very hard to hit the right notes at the right time, just like a girl at her first audition for the school chorus. As she tiptoes awkwardly through the melody, she makes us painfully aware of her nonexistent acting skills while attempting to project a tone of awed reverence for the man to whom she is willing to sacrifice everything—body, soul and any sense of self-esteem. When she finally gets to move up the scale a bit on the phrase, “With your hand,” at first you think George Martin couldn’t stand it any more, leapt out of the booth, shoved Cilla to the side and replaced her with an emergency standby singer. But no, it’s just Cilla completely blowing it by suddenly thickening her voice in preparation for some serious hamming on the painfully overwrought line, “I feel a power so divine.” At this point she’s supposed to dig deeply into her emotions and build to a grand finale, but all we get is loud and louder almost to the point of panic, like a desperate American Idol contestant whose dreams are about to be cruelly shattered by the heartless panel. In the end, we learn that, just like Skeeter Davis, losing her man would be the end of the world for Cilla, and I think the odds of that happening are pretty high, as no man in his right mind would want a woman so brainlessly dependent on his existence.
This was Cilla’s only appearance on the American charts, where she stalled at #26. She remained quite popular in the U. K., where she reached the Top 10 eleven times and became a popular television host for decades. Let’s just say I don’t like her performance on this particular song and give her due credit for a very successful career in the field of entertainment that ended with her passing last year.
“A Summer Song,” Chad & Jeremy, August 1964: I argued with my dad for days about which Chad & Jeremy song to cover. I expressed a preference for the snappier “Yesterday’s Gone” while he insisted that “A Summer Song” was the more iconic of the two. I couldn’t disagree with him on that score, so I let him win one (and only one).
I have to confess that summer songs don’t move my needle much, as they’re often drenched in nostalgia, and I’ve always thought of nostalgia as a virulent disease of the psyche. I also grew up in a place where summer meant freezing your ass off in the fog while the rest of the country seemed to bask in the sunshine. I say seemed to bask because later I learned from first-hand experience that summer sucks pretty much everywhere east of the Rockies because of the horrible humidity that makes everything smell like a moldy hunk of cheese. Now that I live in Nice, summer is the time of year when we’re overrun by tourists hoping to see a few nice racks on a topless beach. Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” pretty much captures my feeling about the high season.
20-second review: “A Summer Song” is a pleasant little ditty compromised by an overactive string arrangement, a minor work that made the Top 10 and opened up new opportunities for Chad & Jeremy in the Easy Listening/Adult Contemporary field.
The real news in August 1964 was the congressional passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, an overreaction to an incident that never took place and would soon put millions of young American men, including my father, in legitimate fear for their lives, and affect the course of popular music in very short order.
“Have I the Right,” The Honeycombs, September 1964: Whenever I hear this song I imagine The Honeycombs performing in big fat fuzzy bumblebee costumes. Whether it’s a subliminal suggestion arising from the name of the band or that horrible buzzing sound in the background is a jump ball. I’m assuming that the buzzing comes from one of Joe Meek’s funny instruments because it sounds a lot like the electronic sounds on The Tornadoes’ “Telstar,” which Meek wrote and produced. Whatever it is, I loathe it.
Even without the buzz, I always thought this song sounded a little weird for some reason but never bothered to figure out why. Forced by this series to get the scoop, I learned that the recording itself is weird. The producers decided to speed it up, and by doing so, raised the pitch, making Dennis D’Ell’s lead vocal sound like a failed audition for Alvin and the Chipmunks. I had always been intrigued by the female drummer but when I learned that those thunderous drums you hear are one-fourth drums and three-fourths Honeycombs stamping their boots on a wooden staircase (while wearing their bee costumes, no doubt), I’d pretty much exhausted all the look-on-the-bright-side possibilities and tossed “Have I the Right” into the shitcan of my mind.
“She’s Not There,” The Zombies, October 1964: The Zombies were light years ahead of most of the other Invasion bands in terms of musical talent and sophistication, and its a testament to their originality that the music experts never really knew how to classify them. Wikipedia classifies “She’s Not There” in three different genres: “jazz rock,” “beat” and “pop rock.” I can understand their confusion: “She’s Not There” is more modal than scale-based, and Rod Argent’s electric piano solo is the keyboard equivalent of Dave Davies’ lead solo on “You Really Got Me”— an exciting passage of music that defies convention. The varied dynamics, the thrilling build to the chorus with its sudden stop and Colin Blunstone’s sexy, breathy vocal are so well-executed that someone who has never heard of The Zombies might conclude that “She’s Not There” was a late-period single that took hours of studio time to mold into perfection. Imagine the shock on that someone’s face when you tell him that this was The Zombies’ first single and they nailed it in one take.
Last year I was fortunate enough to see The Zombies in concert, where they performed the entirety of Odyssey and Oracle note for note and mixed some newer work with old favorites. They actually played “She’s Not There” twice, in modestly different versions. They could have played it a hundred times and I wouldn’t have minded in the least—this is one song with a life span that will be measured in the centuries.
“Time Is On My Side,” The Rolling Stones, October 1964: The Stones didn’t exactly explode onto the American scene; none of their first three singles (“Not Fade Away,” “Tell Me” and “It’s All Over Now”) made the Top 20. It is therefore somewhat surprising that the band who would become one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands in history first reached the Top 10 with a slow dance number. Keith Richard chalked it up to Americans preferring soul to rock ‘n’ roll, a plausible theory in a year when American soul music was pretty much the only modern American music that could hold its own against the Brits. What’s really weird is the version released of “Time Is On My Side” in the United States is clearly inferior to the version everyone knows today. The enduring version features a hot guitar-lick intro; the American version opens with a funereal organ. The harmonies and background vocals are seriously off in terms of both key and timing, and Mick’s vocal lacks the consistent command of the familiar take. After listening to dad’s 45 the usual three times, I had to clean my eardrums by listening to the version on Hot Rocks four times in a row!
Oh, well . . . at least the substandard version broke the losing streak and earned The Stones a trip to the Ed Sullivan Show. Ed was so horrified by their slovenly appearance that he swore he’d never have them back. He later changed his mind, rang Mick Jagger on the trans-atlantic phone line and said, “Hey! Let’s spend some time together!”
“Laugh, Laugh,” The Beau Brummels, January 1965: Sal Valentino was born and raised in North Beach, San Francisco, when North Beach was a pretty cool place to be. Populated largely by Italian-American immigrants (including the DiMaggio family), North Beach became the scene in San Francisco, a place where beatniks thrived, where jazz greats came to play and where topless dancing burst into the limelight.
And when you’re talking about the legendary Carol Doda, I do mean burst.
Sal Valentino could have easily become another fine nightclub singer in the Italian-American tradition, but he too was caught up in the excitement of the new music from Britain. Offered a regular gig at a night club, he scrambled to put together a band, and just like Dion, he started looking for guys from his old neighborhood. There he connected with childhood friend Ron Elliott, a guy who knew a thing or two about music. Elliott recruited the rest of the guys, and The Beau Brummels were born.
Their timing couldn’t have been better. Local DJ’s Tom Donahue and Bobby Mitchell were looking for acts to sign for their new label, Autumn Records, and caught the band’s act in a nightclub in San Mateo. While they saw Sal Valentino as a more-than-capable front man, Donahue and Mitchell were more intrigued by Ron Elliott’s songwriting talent. In a few short months, with the help of a very young producer by the name of Sly Stone, “Laugh, Laugh” was released.
The chord structure for this song is unusually complex, with the minor key couplets each resolving on an E major chord while the chorus is based on a rising fourth chord progression (moving counterclockwise on the circle of fifths). The circular progression also (and very cleverly) resolves to E major. Ron Elliot had been composing music for years, and the man not only knew his music theory, but knew what to do with it. Sal Valentino navigates the complexity with admirable ease, an unusual display of command for a rookie singer.
While “Just a Little” was the bigger hit, “Laugh, Laugh” is the more musically interesting piece and one of my favorite hometown songs. After their second hit and an animated TV appearance on The Flintstones (no shit!), the BB’s would shift gears and produce two critically acclaimed and completely ignored albums before splitting up towards the end of 1968.
“Ferry Cross the Mersey,” Gerry & The Pacemakers, February 1965: Gerry and the Pacemakers’ happy stuff (“How Do You Do It?” and “I Like It”) tends to be a little too sugary for my tastes, and I could never stand the mushiness of “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.” I do like “It’s Gonna Be Alright,” the song that actually opens the Ferry Cross the Mersey film, but sadly, Dad doesn’t have the 45, so I chose the title track instead.
Gerry Marsden wrote this wistful song about the Merseyside and its friendly and welcoming people in much the same vein as The Beach Boys’ songs about Southern California: mythologizing. The difference is that the Liverpool of the 60’s needed a healthy dose of validation while Southern California could have used a healthy dose of humility. Musically speaking, it’s pretty predictable, but Gerry sings it well and it’s a pleasant way to pass a couple of minutes.
As for the film . . . dad bought a DVD-R copy of the film from Amazon, as it’s never been officially released on video. It’s definitely a rip-off of A Hard Day’s Night but still worth the few bucks for a badly-made copy because most of it was shot on location in 1960’s Liverpool.
“I’ll Never Find Another You,” The Seekers, March 1965: Tom Springfield’s “I’ll Never Find Another You” has deep personal significance for me and my partner—it’s “our song.”
When I was looking for that special someone, I only had two criteria. I wanted someone who was irresistibly attractive to me and who was willing to do the hard work of peeling away the layers of bullshit that accumulate in the personality and make it impossible to experience true intimacy. I wanted no separation—not in the physical sense, but in the relational sense. I wanted a relationship where both parties shared all their secrets, all their vulnerabilities, all their fears, all their fantasies. Trust is the most important factor in any relationship, and to build complete trust requires full commitment and full disclosure.
I went through at least a dozen relationships with that goal in mind before I found my partner. I can’t take much credit for the discovery because it was more her finding me than vice versa. My first impression of her was “frivolous loser.”
Fortunately, she is both fearless and persistent and managed to overcome my skepticism. Sometimes when I think of all those failed relationships and the time and energy I put into trying to make something out of not much, I seek her out, hold her as close as I can and sing this verse to her:
There is always someone
For each of us they say
And you’ll be my someone
Forever and a day
I could search the whole world over
Until my life is through
But I know I’ll never find another you
Then we do naughty things together.
Judith Durham’s vocal is one of my all-time favs, and it’s a pity that her strong, capable voice was wasted on shit like “Georgy Girl.” That song also has personal significance—of another sort. My dad knew how much I hated it and sometimes he would sneak into my room at night and set up my CD alarm clock to play “Georgy Girl” when my alarm went off.
I really should have reported him to child protective services.
“I’m Telling You Now,” Freddie & The Dreamers, March 1965: British readers may be confused by the date here; in the mother country, “I’m Telling You Now” topped the charts in August 1963. The song was released in the United States back then and did absolutely nothing. Re-released in 1965 when the American people were ga-ga for all things British, it went straight to the top.
Freddie Garrity co-wrote the song with Invasion tunesmith Mitch Murray, who famously wrote the song rejected by The Beatles for their follow-up hit, “How Do You Do It?” The two songs share the same joyful innocence, but I prefer “I’m Telling You Now” as the more prototypical Invasion song with its bright guitar chords (again, not a Ric) and close harmonies. Trying to watch a performance of “I’m Telling You Now” takes some fortitude, as Freddie and the Dreamers play the song while doing The Freddie in unison, justifying Lester Bangs’ description of them as a band with “plentitude of talentless idiocy.”
It’s impossible to play the what-if game with Freddie and the Dreamers . . . but let me show you why. Ask yourself, “What if the Americans had paid attention to ‘I’m Telling You Now’ back in the summer of 1963? Would the British Invasion have started six months earlier?” The answer should leap out of your mouth: “Not a fucking chance.” Only The Beatles could have pulled off a feat of such magnitude, for several reasons. One, they had genuine talent. Two, they had two of the best songwriters who ever lived. Three, they were generally nice-looking blokes, especially John and Paul. Four, they had the wit and sense of humor to charm the press and the populace. Five, The Beatles wouldn’t have been caught dead doing The Freddie.
“For Your Love,” The Yardbirds, May 1965: The historical significance of “For Your Love” cannot be underestimated, because it was the song that motivated Eric Clapton to leave the group for John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers. “Good riddance,” say I, for it opened a spot for Jeff Beck, who was much more suited for the role and would have an enormous influence in shaping The Yardbirds’ distinct sound.
Even without Jeff Beck on this song, “For Your Love” clearly differentiated The Yardbirds from other Invasion bands through its multi-faceted defiance of convention. Paul Samwell-Smith reworked the arrangement on the original Graham Gouldman demo, and thought an organ would be a nice touch. They brought organist Brian Auger into the studio to record the organ part and found that there wasn’t an organ anywhere in the building. No problem! Hey! Here’s a harpsichord! Auger put together the intro and supporting chords, amplifying the mysterious and moody character of the minor key by a hundredfold. The use of bongos in the minor key verses add to the song’s exotic, foreign feel. The song changes both key (E minor to E major) and rhythm in the middle eight, a shift to a classic rock rhythm that propels the song and gives the listener something familiar to hold onto. Add Keith Relf’s natural talent in working with half-step melodic moves occasioned by the flattening of the third in major-minor chord changes, and “For Your Love” is not only a helluva single but a gateway to future experimentation.
Things worked out for Clapton, too, as his stuff on the Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton not only gave him shared billing but is much better than anything he did during his time with The Yardbirds.
“In the Midnight Hour,” Wilson Pickett, July 1965: Dad joined a couple of “garage” bands during his teens (“garage” is in quotes because there’s no way a four-piece band can fit into a San Francisco garage), playing rhythm guitar and singing backup vocals. When I put this particular disc on the turntable, the sound of Wilson Pickett’s voice triggered his memory of his all-too fleeting career in music. “Every garage band in the country had to learn this song whether they liked it or not. The only gigs a teenage band could get were high school dances, and that meant you played more Stones than Beatles and a whole lot of soul music. ‘In the Midnight Hour’ got the kids onto the dance floor like nothing else.”
Wilson Pickett had all the right stuff to record this iconic song: a deep background in gospel and serious respect for Little Richard. Steve Cropper and Pickett had composed the song together in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where MLK would meet his tragic end a few years later. When Atlantic/Stax president Jerry Wexler heard it, he made what proved to be a crucial suggestion: change the beat to accent the second beat in the measure to make it more danceable. If you compare the beat from “In the Midnight Hour” to Ringo’s intro to the Sgt. Pepper reprise, your body will tell you why that shift mattered so much. Ringo’s pattern accentuates the third beat—da-da-DA-da—-and you start tapping your feet. When you place the accent on the second beat, da-DA-da-da, your hips get involved and your ass goes into thrust mode. For horny teenagers in these early days of The Pill, dancing was as close as you could get to “going all the way,” and “In the Midnight Hour” is perfectly designed to encourage such shadow-fucking.
I’ve commented elsewhere on the parallels between religious and sexual ecstasy, and some of our greatest sex songs have come from singers trained in gospel music (Aretha Franklin, for example). Wilson Pickett was an inspired choice for this number, and when he sings “And do all the things I told you,” you can hear the sheer ecstasy in his voice as he contemplates fulfillment of his every fantasy.
“You Were on My Mind,” We Five, July 1965: To appreciate just how good We Five’s version is, listen to the alternatives provided by Ian and Sylvia and Crispian St. Peters. Ian and Sylvia’s version is a lazy bluegrass number with no oomph whatsoever. Crispian St. Peters’ version sounds like he’s either just woken up or is under the influence of barbiturates.
By the way . . . Yes, “Pied Piper” is in my dad’s collection, and no, I won’t be covering it. That fucking piccolo on the chorus makes me want to reach for a brick and throw it at the speakers.
Back to We Five, their version of “You Were on My Mind” is masterpiece of dynamics, propelled by an exceptionally strong vocal by Beverly Bivens, whose range spanned from tenor to high soprano. The gradual build in intensity leading to the sudden shift to stillness in the last verse gives us a temporary respite, but the downshift is only a way station leading to the glorious ending with its complex harmonies on the long held note and the arpeggiated guitar coda. Absolutely breathtaking!
We Five seemed to be another promising San Francisco ensemble, but once Beverly left the group in late 1966, they were never able to recapture the magic. Bummer.
“Like a Rolling Stone,” Bob Dylan, July 1965: Rolling Stone rates this song the #1 song of all time, a rating that makes perfect marketing sense when the song is the source of the name of your magazine. However, even I, a Dylan-skeptic, cannot deny the song’s influence and impact. Clocking in at 6:13, “Like a Rolling Stone” shattered the three-minute airplay limit, an achievement that freed many artists, from Frank Sinatra to The Beatles, from a completely arbitrary restriction on creativity. While I loathe the vitriolic tone of the song, I appreciate Dylan’s insights into the gap between what we now call The One-Percent and those forced to live on the streets by either misfortune or America’s refusal to deal with its mental illness epidemic. My favorite verse is the second verse, where Dylan exposes the cherished college education as an empty status symbol that leaves the song’s heroine completely unable to deal with the harsh realities of street-level survival:
Ahh you’ve gone to the finest schools, alright Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
Nobody’s ever taught you how to live out on the street
And now you’re gonna have to get used to it
You say you never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And say do you want to make a deal?
As is usually the case, the Baby Boomers who revere Dylan have over-analyzed the song to death and inflated the contributions of everyone who appeared on the recording. Mike Bloomfield certainly had better days, and really, Al Kooper’s organ piece isn’t all that difficult. What really makes the song—I can hardly believe I’m saying this—is Bob Dylan’s vocal. He sings “Like a Rolling Stone” like a man who has finally found his voice and his message, allowing the listener to share in the experience of artistic liberation.
“Summer Nights,” Marianne Faithfull, August 1965: Marianne Faithfull was every American teenage boy’s fantasy of an English bird. Her reedy, breathy voice caused many a willie to wiggle in excitement, including my father’s. Her long blonde hair and big dreamy eyes enticed my father to buy her eponymous first album just for the cover. I examined the sleeve carefully and found no evidence of male residue, so at least I know that dad didn’t go completely bonkers over the broad.
When my dad hears early Marianne Faithfull, he conjures up the image of a 20th-century Guinevere. When I hear early Marianne Faithfull, I hear a very poor singer with limited vocal and emotional range. We both agree that the voice she displayed on Broken Dreams has more character and generates more emotion, but that voice was the result of a long, dark period marked by multiple forms of drug addiction and episodes of homelessness. In any case, her work on Broken Dreams is a whole lot better than her contribution to “Summer Nights,” where she gives a rather awkward performance indicating she played hooky on the day they covered proper breathing techniques in the Vocals 101 class. I wholeheartedly endorse Clive Davis’ assessment of Marianne Faithfull: she was and is more of a performance artist than a singer.
“Eve of Destruction,” Barry McGuire, August 1965: Barry McGuire’s sandpapery voice was already quite familiar to the American listening public through his solo spots on The New Christy Minstrels’ hit, “Green, Green.” McGuire’s shift from sanitized ensemble folkie to protest singer angered flag-loving conservatives in the USA, fueling a defensive patriotism that manifested itself in two response songs. The first, “Dawn of Correction,” was written and performed by a temporary alliance called The Spokesmen, featuring (once again) the two guys who wrote “At the Hop.” Here’s their first verse:
The western world has a common dedication
To keep free people from Red domination
And maybe you can’t vote, boy, but man your battle stations
Or there’ll be no need for votin’ in future generations
Oh, for fuck’s sake.
The more affirmative defense manifested itself in Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” a celebration of alleged American military heroism in the jungles of Vietnam that topped the charts for five consecutive weeks in 1966.
A triple oh, for fuck’s sake to that one.
While the issues in P. F. Sloan’s song are period-specific, it’s astonishing to listen to “Eve of Destruction” and see how little has changed in our world in the last fifty years. Verse one: violence in the Middle East. Verse two: the threat of nuclear proliferation. Verse three: a dysfunctional political system. Verse four: the persistent presence of hatred in world and personal affairs.
Recorded in one take—and accidentally released before they had time to do a “proper” vocal take—Barry McGuire’s performance is a wonder, a sincere expression of deep anguish at the blindness of the human race as it marches blindly towards inevitable self-destruction. The 60’s were full of great protest songs, but “Eve of Destruction” is the one people remember best.
Protest songs provoke a curious reaction in me: I generally agree with the nature of the protest, but I also know that however fiery the protest, the blowback will be equally intense. The idealist in me yearns for the one protest song that will change everything and everyone overnight, a silly dream if there ever was one.
“It Ain’t Me Babe,” The Turtles, August 1965: In 1964, everyone jumped at the chance to cover Lennon & McCartney; in 1965, a Dylan cover was almost a guaranteed pathway to success. I generally dislike Dylan’s relationship songs, which tend to focus on relationship failures and wallow in bitterness, so I have to give Howard Kaylan some credit here for taking a more balanced approach to “It Ain’t Me Babe.” Kaylan sings the two verses in this made-for-AM-radio abbreviated version with more heartbreak than heartburn, more empathy than antipathy. His ire rises only in the chorus, a fair reaction to a partner who heaps you with expectations and denies your right to a unique identity. My dad has most of The Turtles’ singles, and I chose this one because a.) I needed a Dylan cover and refused to consider Cher; b.) The Turtles were comparatively competent, especially for such a young band; and c.) I’d do anything to avoid having to listen to “Happy Together” again.
“There But for Fortune,” Joan Baez, September 1965: If you’ve read my review of Woodstock, you’ll know how little I appreciate Joan Baez, but I deeply appreciate Phil Ochs, and this is one of my favorite Phil Ochs songs. While Joan’s version is stiffer than Phil’s live and studio versions, she does manage to avoid some of her often distracting vocal mannerisms, allowing the listener to focus on the beauty of the poetry. The simple idea of this song—that things can happen to people for reasons out of their control—is in itself a protest against the strange American belief that if something bad happens to you it’s your own damned fault because either you didn’t work hard enough or committed some sort of sin against God or a transgression against human authority. The prisoner, the homeless, the drunkards all get what they deserve in the land of the free and the home of the white-privileged cowards who run the place.
The lyrics remind us of the common humanity we share with those who suffer misfortune, and whether that misfortune was the result of dumb luck or a simple human mistake hardly matters. When people need help, we should help them. If they’re trying to game the system, doesn’t that tell you the system isn’t responding to human needs? Or that the person needs a different form of help or education? When are we going to get it?
The lyrics to the first three verses are incredibly moving, and deserve your full attention. I am using Joan’s lyrics for consistency’s sake, but there was some controversy concerning her rendition. The “and” in parentheses is not in her version; it is noted because Phil Ochs was seriously pissed at Joan for omitting it. To Phil, that omission changed the meaning; personally, I have no opinion on the subject.
Show me the prison, show me the jail,
Show me the prisoner whose face life has gone stale
And I’ll show you a young man with so many reasons why
(And) There but for fortune, go you or I.
Show me the alley, show me the train,
Show me a hobo who sleeps out in the rain,
And I’ll show you a young man with so many reasons why
(And) There but for fortune, go you or I.
Show me the whiskey stains on the floor,
Show me the drunkard as he stumbles out the door,
And I’ll show you a young man with so many reasons why
(And) There but for fortune, go you or I.
The last verse deals with the grander issue of war against a young country and how patriotism and paranoia lead us to dehumanize the enemy. At the time Joan’s version was released, LBJ, who upon passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution said he was not “committing American boys to fighting a war that I think ought to be fought by the boys of Asia to help protect their own land,” had already begun the senseless bombing and troop escalation that would place 200,000 American soldiers to Vietnam by year’s end. While that single verse has led some to classify “There But for Fortune” as a Vietnam War protest song, the truth is that Phil Ochs wrote a song of timeless value that remains relevant today.
“I Still Love You,” The Vejtables, October 1965: If you want to hear what a real garage band sounded like in 1965—check that—a real garage band with actual talent—go no further than The Vejtables. When picked up by Autumn Records, The Vejtables were still attending high school in Millbrae, a bedroom community south of San Francisco, one of a string of suburban towns connected by the El Camino (nobody in the Bay Area refers to the old Jesuit missionary path as the El Camino Real). “I Still Love You” was their one and only hit to breach the Top 100, popping in at #88 for a single week.
The center of gravity for The Vejtables was a young lady named Jan Errico, who chose Jan Ashton as her stage name because British-sounding names were in and Italian-sounding names were on their way out. Jan was the drummer, lead singer and lead songwriter, a young gal with a shitload of talent. “I Still Love You” is a very melodic and clever pop song, unique in that it has no chorus—the transition to the bridge is accomplished by an appended line of verse. Her vocal is flat-out gorgeous, and the band, with its jangly guitars and simple vocal harmonies, has all the freshness of teens discovering the joys of the new sounds emanating from the British Isles.
The band fell apart once Autumn Records went belly up and Jan transferred her talents to the equally unstable Mojo Men, whose hit will be covered in the 1967 segment. It’s really too bad that Jan didn’t find a more stable environment and upper-level support from industry powers, as she was not only a fabulous vocalist but a promising songwriter. Her song “Cold Dreary Morning” is Ray Davies-like in its characterization of mood and social reality, and the best song I’ve ever heard about life in the fog belt on the San Francisco Peninsula.
“Rescue Me,” Fontella Bass, October 1965: The result of a jam session at Chess Records, the first thing I noticed when I listened to the song three times through is how Fontella’s voice became stronger and how her emotional expression became more varied and genuine as the song went on. I researched the background and found that all those marvelous moans and lyrical fragments in the call-and-response segment towards the end of the song were the direct result of Fontella having forgotten the words! Hooray! Now you can just feel it, baby! It helped that she had some pretty solid musicians behind her, including two guys who would wind up in Earth, Wind & Fire.
After some bad experiences with the recording industry, Fontella split for Paris with her musically-inclined hubby and recorded a couple of albums with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, most famously (from the French perspective) the 9-minute avant-garde jazz piece, “Theme de Yo-Yo.” Her work with the ensemble is absolutely stunning, and so far removed from her work on Chess that it’s hard to believe it’s the same woman.
“The Sound(s) of Silence,” Simon & Garfunkel, November 1965: “Do I have to, Dad?” “Yes.” “But I can’t stand Simon & Garfunkel.” “Paul Simon is an important American songwriter.” “Paul Simon is just the English major version of Neil Sedaka.” “Come on. He was a more-than-credible poet.” “If he was such a credible poet, why did he have to keep reminding people he was a poet and that Artie was just a one-man band?” “How about if we extend the series to 1968 so you can do ‘Mrs. Robinson?’ Surely you see the value in that song.” “I think it’s a dumb-ass song. They tried to show how hip they were with the ‘I Am the Walrus’ snippet and that reference to DiMaggio was astonishingly racist. Who needed DiMaggio when you had Willie Mays? Was it that the white folk back then didn’t cotton to Willie because he was a black dude?” “Well, if all you’re going to do is trash Paul Simon, then don’t bother.”
“I Got You (I Feel Good),” James Brown, November 1965: Look. You’re never going to buy a James Brown song for the lyrics, so forget about them. James Brown was an influential entertainer who put all his chips on the groove, using his high-pitched, gravel-soaked voice to amplify the excitement embedded in the song’s movement. “I Got You (I Feel Good)” is pure heat delivered by a very tight band and a vocalist who allowed himself to channel the feeling with a minimum of interference. ‘Nuff said.
“Jenny Take a Ride,” Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels, December 1965: Look. You’re never going to buy a Mitch Ryder song for the lyrics . . . wait, where have I heard that before? Am I getting senile? Let me start again: if you want pure rock ‘n’ roll without any socially significant hoo-hah, look no further than Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels. Mitch hit the Top 10 with two medleys—“Jenny Take A Ride” mingles “See See Rider” with the Little Richard classic, and “Devil with the Blue Dress On” appends Mr. Penniman’s “Good Golly, Miss Molly” to create a thrilling finale. Mitch Ryder kicks ass! ‘Nuff said.
“Lies,” The Knickerbockers, December 1965: Many American Beatles imitators emerged on the scene in 1965, including and especially The Knickerbockers. The first few times my dad heard “Lies” he thought it was The Beatles, and had to eat crow when he called the local radio station and requested “the new Beatles single” only to have the DJ respond, “‘Day Tripper’—got it.” Once he finally saw The Knickerbockers on television in their short hair and business suits, he felt completely betrayed and never played the single again. He tried to trade the 45 but couldn’t find any takers.
Sheesh! Sure, I hear The Beatles’ influence, but the lead singer doesn’t sound like John, Paul, George or even Ringo, so we’ll just chalk up my dad’s mistake to a still-developing ear. “Lies” is a pretty decent song with steady intensity from the first note to the last. By all accounts, The Knickerbockers modus operandi was to follow whatever trend might lead them to stardom, an approach clearly destined to make them the one-hit wonders they turned out to be.
“Uptight (Everything’s Alright), Stevie Wonder, December 1965: I found it odd that dad’s collection didn’t include Little Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips,” because he loves Stevie Wonder, and “Fingertips (Part 2)” hit the top of the charts in 1963. Dad? “I thought it was a novelty song, you know—the little blind black boy wows the crowd kind of thing. It was more of a gimmick than anything else. I thought he was being exploited and didn’t realize it, so I stayed away.”
I think that’s fair. If Stevie Wonder was truly going to manifest his destiny, he had to avoid the sympathy trap and move beyond the expectations attached to becoming “The Next Ray Charles.” He had to become his own man.
“Uptight” was the moment when he crossed that bridge. Although I find the horn arrangement ridiculously over the top, there is absolutely no doubt that Stevie Wonder—not Little Stevie Wonder—had begun to set his own course. His vocal on this song flows beautifully, the sound of a man who has found his true voice and inner confidence. When I listen to “Uptight,” I see the path to Innervisions and the truly great work he would produce in the future.
“It Was a Very Good Year,” Frank Sinatra, December 1965: I was absolutely blown away to find Ol’ Blue Eyes in my father’s collection, as it didn’t fit the narrative of a teenage boy smitten by British rock and American soul. When I confronted him with this contradiction, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s a great song with a great arrangement by a guy who knew how to sing.”
I completely agree. Sinatra was a serious musician and student of the vocal arts, and though some of his anti-longhair and political comments during this period made him seem like a hopeless old fart, he could still bring it to the microphone. Starting with his work at Capitol in the mid-1950’s, Frank Sinatra made a series of lasting and influential recordings that will endure forever, and continued to issue first-class work after forming his own label, Reprise Records, in the early 60’s. Several notable artists signed with Reprise, including one of the more outrageous Invasion bands—a motley crew who called themselves The Kinks.
Frank Sinatra brought us The Kinks, for fuck’s sake! For that alone, he should earn a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!
“It Was a Very Good Year” is my favorite Sinatra number of them all. Backed by one of the loveliest wind-and-string arrangements in popular music history, Sinatra plays the part of a man recounting the most important experiences in his life—all of which have to do with women. Well, duh! Is there anything more important in life to a heterosexual man than women? Of course not!
Frank’s vocal is beautifully reflective throughout the song. As he reminisces about the babes he’s enjoyed you can visualize the summer nights spent on the village green discovering the joys of post-pubescent existence; you can smell the perfume in the undone hair of the more active twenty-somethings who live in the upstairs flats; you can feel the cool leather of the limousine as he pours his high-class date a glass of Dom Perignon. I do take exception to the last verse, where he describes himself as a guy “in the autumn of my years.” While his vocal gains strength, it sounds like he draws more strength from memories of past achievements than the possibility of future opportunities. If I’d been alive and active back then, I would have told him, “Frank, baby! You’ve only just turned fifty! One of the best fucks I’ve ever had was a guy in his sixties, so you’ve got at least ten more years to play. Forget Mia Farrow—Raquel Welch is ready and waiting for you, baby!”
“It Was a Very Good Year” was the start of a very impressive run for Frank on the pop charts. In 1966, “Strangers in the Night” knocked “Paperback Writer” out of the top spot, “Summer Wind” made the Top 30, and “That’s Life” (also in my dad’s collection) would enter the Top 10 toward the end of the year.
But most importantly, Frank Sinatra fathered a daughter . . . a daughter who would give American males their very first lesson in the art of female dominance.
Originally published October 2012, completely revised, August 2016.
During my formative years, I formed many things: nice tits, a great ass and a strong aversion to American folk music. Part of that aversion had to do with a brief period in my youth when my mother went through a phase where she incessantly played John Denver records.
She can’t explain it either, and wished I hadn’t reminded her.
Imagine a pretty little girl with a complexion of strawberries-and-cream and a perpetual smile on her face. The camera pans in as she happily plays with her dollies as rock ‘n’ roll plays in the background. Suddenly, the music stops, and after a few minutes, the sounds of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” fills the air. The camera goes in for a close up. As the music plays, the little girl’s expression of innocent delight transforms into a dark, distorted, twisted grimace as if she has just swallowed poison. She lets out a bloodcurdling scream . . . the screen goes dark . . . and the next scene begins with a gaggle of decapitated dolls strewn across the floor.
I hope I’ve made my feelings about John Denver clear.
American folk music has never grabbed me for a number of reasons. For the most part, it’s musically boring and predictable. I know that many people in my parents’ generation think that Bob Dylan is a lyrical genius, and while I wouldn’t go that far, some of his lyrics are better than decent. But Dylan is anything but a musical genius—you can pick up the chords to almost any Dylan song in about five minutes. Woody Guthrie followed the same model: focus on the words, keep the music simple.
I do like folk music from the other side of the pond, particularly Fairport Convention, June Tabor, Steeleye Span and a few others. I am quite passionate about Bulgarian folk music with its weird time signatures and soaring melodies. Lately I’ve become interested in North African folk and chaabi, in part because of my current proximity to Africa and the large number of Moroccan and Algerian immigrants in the area. But when it comes to American folk music, the only artists whose work I truly admire are Phil Ochs and Malvina Reynolds. The vast archives of American folk music hold little interest for me except for a couple of Ramblin’ Jack Elliot renditions, some Leonard Cohen stuff (as long as someone else is singing it), and this one album by Dave Van Ronk.
Dave Van Ronk was an interesting guy—a big, burly, gruff-voiced Brooklynite who relocated to Greenwich Village in his teens and became a serious student and interpreter of American folk music. His autobiography, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, is a hoot, a free-wheeling coming-of-age story, most of which took place during the folk music revival in the early 60’s. In addition to some great stories of the life of a wayward musician, he shared his thoughts on music, and one particular quote caught my eye: a lesson he learned from one of his mentors, Jack Norton:
Never use two notes when one will do. Never use one note when silence will do. The essence of music is punctuated silence. Van Ronk, Dave (2013-10-15). The Mayor of MacDougal Street [2013 edition]: A Memoir (p. 11). Da Capo Press. Kindle Edition.
That’s my Count Basie Theory in a nutshell!
Whether it was song selection, empty spaces or excellent interpretive skills, there is something about Dave Van Ronk’s approach that made American folk music come alive for me. Folksinger is filled with the kind of music that lifts you out of the daily routine and immerses you in a series of all-too human tales of love, betrayal, addiction and loss.
“Samson and Delilah” opens the album, a traditional song Van Ronk learned from mentor Reverend Gary Davis, though recorded under a different title as far back as 1927 by Blind Willie Johnson. What I love about this retelling of the biblical story is that it focuses on the human aspect rather than the spiritual. The Bible has some great stories, but when the various authors shift to moralizing I tune out completely. Here we get two verses that describe Samson as an uncivilized Neanderthal of exceptional strength without any reference to him being “god-fearing.” Delilah’s entry into the scene is described in the same language that later blues musicians would use to describe a hot babe’s grand entrance into the juke joint:
Well, Delilah was a woman, she was fine and fair,
She had lovely looks, God knows, and coal black hair
Delilah worked fast, like Mata Hari on speed:
Well, Delilah climbed up on Samson’s knee,
“Now tell me where your strength lie, if you please?”
Well, she talked so fine, God knows, she talked so fair,
Well now, Samson said, “Delilah, you can shave my hair,
You can shave my hair just as soon as you can
And my strength will be that of a natural man.”
Van Ronk’s sense of vocal dynamics is startling and compelling, as he raises the volume on the just the right words—sometimes a single word— to reflect the libidinal surges Samson experienced. The guitar support remains in deep background so that our full attention is riveted to the story.
Van Ronk turns to Reverend Gary once again for the song that would become his signature song: “Cocaine Blues.” A dramatic monologue from the perspective of cocaine addict, we meet the narrator on the edge of forced withdrawal, describing a life characterized by police harassment, threats of gun violence from his lover and entrapment by a powerfully addictive drug that sickens and controls him. Van Ronk’s tone in the early verses combines resignation, near-exhaustion and an almost helpless sense of humor as the addict quietly reflects on the consequences of addiction.
Cocaine’s for horses, not for men
They tell me it’ll kill me but they won’t say when
Cocaine—runnin’ all ’round my brain
As the waves of nausea intensify, the steady blues-tinged guitar pattern becomes more insistent, and Van Ronk’s voice transforms from defiant resignation to genuine alarm. In the last verse, when he raises his voice to maximum volume, he sounds like he has assimilated the panic of the deprived addict, and explodes in an unrelenting growl of agony and despair:
Come here, baby, come here quick,
This old cocaine’s gonna make me sick,
Cocaine—runnin’ all ‘round my brain.
The sheer intensity of the performance is such that you have to stop the album before playing the next song and give yourself some time to recover from the experience. “Cocaine Blues” is an interpretive masterpiece with few equals in any genre.
Van Ronk figured we’d need something on the light side to follow “Cocaine Blues” and delivers with “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon.” Refusing to change gender to accommodate his own, Van Ronk plays the role of a woman taunting her about-to-be-ex-lover with the studliness of her new beau:
Well he is the king of lovin’
Just minus of a crown
He’s a good old wagon, daddy
And he ain’t broke down
Van Ronk delights in the role reversal, capturing the woman’s scarcely disguised glee at putting her old man in his place.
“Fixin’ to Die” is an old Bukka White song (“Fixin’ to Die Blues”), one he penned when he “got to wondering how a man feels when he dies.” Bob Dylan’s earlier cover version managed to rescue Bukka from obscurity and made him something of a figure in the 60’s folk revival. Bukka really didn’t think much of this particular song, and while I don’t think it’s one of his best, songs about facing death tend to appeal to the more dramatically inclined interpretistes. Van Ronk’s version is as strong as the original (though I do miss the washboard), and he manages to capture the strange anxiety the dying often feel about things left undone and responsibilities left unfulfilled (particularly family responsibilities).
“Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” is a very quiet number describing the experience of a man on his way to the gallows. Although I’m forever thrown by the Americanized pronunciation of “Girardeau” as “Jordo,” Van Ronk gives a compelling, empathetic performance of a man inflating the extent of his travels to convince himself he has led a full life and won’t be missing much in the grave. It’s followed by the traditional “Long John,” a vivid description of a ramblin’ man who winds up on the chain gang “with my teeth poked out.” It’s also the source material for “Baby Please Don’t Go,” popularized by Big Joe Williams, Muddy Waters and Them. Side 1 ends with an adaptation of a Liberian folk tune, “Chicken Is Nice,” in which a man catalogues a list of undesirable wives whose undesirability stems from cultural stereotypes associated with geography. Van Ronk’s delivery is gentle, bemused and a perfect fit for the narrative.
Another great example that demonstrates why Dave Van Ronk touches my soul and other folk musicians leave me cold can be found in his version of “He Was a Friend of Mine.” I’ve heard versions by Dylan, The Byrds (who turned it into a JFK eulogy) and The Chad Mitchell Trio (!). Only in Dave Van Ronk’s version do I hear the deep mourning, the anger of loss and the existential helplessness one experiences with the death of a friend or loved one. Dave Van Ronk performed this song in the memorial tribute to Phil Ochs, and I can’t believe there was a dry eye left in the house. A great interpretive artist has to combine discipline with empathy, and Dave Van Ronk achieved that rare and difficult balance in this marvelous performance.
“Motherless Children” continues the theme of loss in a growling performance characterized with more bitterness than empathy—the “life is unfair” theme. “Stackalee” is a much more coherent and compelling version of the old folk song than you hear in Lloyd Price’s abbreviated hit, “Stagger Lee.” Van Ronk’s take on the Furry Lewis version emphasizes the terrifying aspect of the lead character, who in real life was a St. Louis pimp and by all accounts, the ultimate bad-ass. After the authorities hang the murderous, sadomasochistic prick, Stack shuttles off to hell, where he has no qualms about taking on Satan himself:
Well, Stack says to The Devil,
‘Devil, let’s us have some fun,
You stab me with your pitchfork
And I’ll shoot you with my gun
When you lose your money, learn to lose
Well, Stack says to The Devil,
‘Put your pitchfork on the shelf,
I’m a bad man they call Stackalee
I’m gonna rule hell by myself
When you lose your money, learn to lose
The song is filled imagery from the world of craps shooting—the ultimate experience of fortune and misfortune—and it never ceases to delight me. Van Ronk’s hard-earned skills at finger-picking are on display here in a yeoman’s display of steady rhythm and brief counterpoints.
“Mr. Noah” is a cute song for children about you-know-who, and I definitely prefer the more adult, sexier “Come Back, Baby” that follows. This is an old Walter Davis song covered by dozens, most notably Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. Davis was a piano player, and his version is definitely more late night bar with only one lonely guy in the place drowning his sorrows in whatever Joe’s pouring. Van Ronk’s version sounds like he’d just read Thoreau, delivering his plea to his lost love in a tone of quiet desperation, in a glorious display of vulnerability.
Folksinger comes to a close with the one song I don’t care for. “Poor Lazarus” is a modification of the traditional “Po’ Lazarus,” a work song about another bad ass. Unlike “Stackalee,” this song drags on too long, and its placement after the very still “Come Back, Baby” was a curious decision. I usually pick up the needle after “Come Back, Baby” and pronounce myself a happy camper.
Before we leave Folksinger, let us deal with the elephant in the room: Dave Van Ronk was a white guy who sang a lot of black music. Rock is full of singers who have attempted with varying degrees of success to emulate African-American vocalists. While I guess the old saw that imitation is flattery has some value, I think it’s a bit off the mark when it comes to this subject, and way off the mark when it comes to Dave Van Ronk. The more effective imitators attempt to immerse themselves in the feelings they hear in the original singer’s voice, and some are quite effective at it. I don’t think early McCartney was trying to “whitewash” Little Richard the way Pat Boone whitewashed Fats Domino—he heard a terribly exciting voice and wanted to capture that excitement.
Dave Van Ronk took it one step further: his goal was to immerse himself in the black person’s experience and connect through empathy. A passionate socialist, he understood his own white privilege well enough to know that sitting around a feeling guilty about the historical developments that put white people in positions of power was a useless, self-indulgent exercise. Singing the songs from the African-American tradition helped him understand the experience, and the gift of a powerful, sandpapery voice made him a natural for interpreting those undeniably powerful songs.
Folksinger in many ways is a brave attempt at bridging the racial divide, but I’m pretty sure that was not Dave Van Ronk’s intent. He was simply fascinated by the music and wanted to interpret it to the best of his ability, to satisfy his own needs for development and maybe make a few listeners stop and think for a moment. The end result was this masterpiece of American folk, a paean to the gift of empathy and understanding.