Elton John spoke at Dusty Springfield’s posthumous induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and said, “”I’m biased but I just think she was the greatest white singer there ever has been.”
What a dick.
I’m not blind to racial differences and the cultural differences that have arisen from them, but really, why does the color of her skin doesn’t fucking matter? There is no question that African-Americans invented jazz and blues music. There is no argument against the notion that white Europeans invented what we call classical music. Neither invention arose from the color of their skin but from cultures influenced by racial segregation. I would never think of calling Miles Davis a black trumpeter any more than I would think of calling Dave Brubeck a white piano player. Having read several Miles Davis bios, I am deeply aware of the pain and anger that burned itself into Miles’ soul that came from being a black man in a racist society; however, when he went to France in 1949, nobody gave a shit what color he was—they just wanted to hear him play. The problem is one of culture, not skin color, and to make it anything else is profoundly disrespectful to the artists and their music.
If I were to refer to Duke Ellington as the greatest black American composer, I would essentially be dissing him by implying, “Well, he was pretty good . . . for a black guy.” So, why dis Dusty because she had the misfortune of having a soulful voice emerge from a white body? I think Elton was trying to pander to African-Americans by implying, “Oh, but of course, she’s no Aretha Frankin or Diana Ross.” I repeat: what a dick. He probably feels loads of guilt for spending his entire life trying to sound like a black guy, but that’s his fucking problem. At least he can afford the therapy.
Look. Michael Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, Charlie Musselwhite and others proved conclusively that white guys could do blues. Benny Goodman, Brubeck and Bill Evans proved that white guys could do jazz. Charley Pride proved that black guys could do country, for fuck’s sake. Cultural oppression and racism remain realities today . . . but your race doesn’t determine your musical ability or interests . . . that’s in your spirit, not your skin.
Okay, I’m done. How about a review?
Let me begin by saying I have a great deal of respect and empathy for Dusty Springfield, in part for her musical talents and in part because of our shared bi-sexuality. My read of her history tells me she was more on the lesbian side of the continuum, where I’m more in the middle despite the current absence of a steady penis in my life. I fully understand that it was much harder for her to express or feel comfortable about her attraction to women during her era because homophobia was a sacred and universal cultural norm. You can see the effects in the emotional oscillation found in this snippet from an early 70’s interview in the LA Free Press (Source: Wikipedia):
I mean, people say that I’m gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay. I’m not anything. I’m just … People are people . . . I basically want to be straight . . . I go from men to women; I don’t give a shit. The catchphrase is: I can’t love a man. Now, that’s my hang-up. To love, to go to bed, fantastic; but to love a man is my prime ambition . . . They frighten me.
Even with uncertainty raging through her bloodstream, her work brims with sexual desire and the desire for real love. On the leather-and-lace continuum, Dusty is definitely more on the lace side, while I’m very happy on the leather end of the scale (unless it’s August in France). You’re not going to hear the no-bullshit, let’s get down to business approach of a Joan Jett or Chrissie Hynde, for Dusty is softer and gentler, more prone to a tongue in your ear than grabbing a fistful of cock or tit, as the case may be.
As much as I admire her, Dusty in Memphis is a problematical album to review. In the first place, the title is somewhat misleading, for a couple of reasons. The liner notes state, in parentheses, “(Dusty Springfield’s final vocals recorded in New York),” not a particularly rousing endorsement of Memphis as the place to go if you want to capture a certain feel in your music. The second disappointment comes from a lack of familiarity with micro-genres. When most people think Memphis, they think of three words: Elvis, blues and rockabilly. Unfortunately, if you’re expecting to hear an album heavily influenced by Dusty’s experiences on Beale Street or something that sounds like it emanated from the Sun Records studio, you will be sorely disappointed. What the producers claim on the cover is that this album is Dusty’s “first recording with the Memphis Sound,” a micro-genre categorizing a slicker, funkier version of soul. You get hints of that in some of the arrangements, but if you’re expecting grooves like you hear in Otis Redding’s or Wilson Pickett’s Stax records, once again you will find yourself pretty much out of luck. This is more late-Stax in the style of Isaac Hayes, but just barely.
One reason you hear relatively little of Memphis in this album is simple: it’s one of the worst produced and engineered records I have ever heard. Dusty’s sensual and expressive vocals are consistently buried under an avalanche of cheesy string arrangements set to maximum volume. The engineers frequently bury the groove as well, so it often sounds like Dusty and the core band are fighting to be heard. The CD reissue does nothing to correct these obvious flaws; if anything, the reissue makes things worse by adding a cold dash of digital sound. What we really need is a Dusty in Memphis: Naked version similar to what the Abbey Road engineers did when they eradicated the cancer of Phil Spector’s production from Let It Be.
The album opens with “Just a Little Lovin’,” a Mann-Weill composition about sex in the morning. I wholeheartedly embrace the message that the world would be a better place if we got a little action before we started the day, as long as both parties first brush their teeth or keep a tin of mints on the nightstand. I used to love waking up next to a guy and finding a ready-made erection all nice and available for me! I’d climb on top before he even knew what hit him and earn a beautiful smile in return. Ignore the ridiculous string arrangement and focus on Dusty’s delivery, alternating between slightly smoky and soaring but always full of soulful passion. Her phrasing is marvelous, emphasizing the right words at the right time through subtle changes in her voicing and pronunciation.
Sticking with established songwriters, Dusty goes with the Brill Building Goffin-King team for “So Much Love.” Sung at the top of her register, you never hear her straining; in fact, she seems to get an energy rush when she goes for the higher notes. Once again overcoming poor taste in musical arrangement and an engineer with an unsteady hand on the gain slider, Dusty gives a knockout performance that thrills me to the core every time I hear it. I’ve rarely heard a singer express the desire for love so completely. This is a very romantic song, suitable for vanilla sex foreplay.
We finally arrive in Memphis for the album’s hit song, “Son of a Preacher Man.” Opening with a soft funk groove, Dusty delivers a remarkably subtle performance in the first two verses as if she’s having a private conversation with a girlfriend about a life-changing spiritual experience. A great fuck will do that to you! Once she gets to the bridge, she becomes a bible-thumping preacher for the new religion of sweet, secretive sex. The arrangement is one of the better efforts on the album, and the The Sweet Inspirations give a first-class performance on the backing vocals. The exposition of religious hypocrisy is an added bonus: the dirty little secret of the South isn’t really that much of a secret, but it’s nice to hear it celebrated instead of buried in hokum.
Randy Newman penned our next song, the slow ballad “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore.” The string arrangement on this song is particularly pompous (with a horrid touch of pizzicato) and buries Dusty alive for most of the track except for a brief stop-time moment at the end. It’s followed by another Goffin-King number, “Don’t Forget About Me.” This is an up-tempo number where the guitarist overdoes the counterpoint a bit and the horns come in a bit too loud, but Dusty comes through with a suitably strong vocal to pull this one out of the fire. You have to forgive the core band here; it’s one of the few times on the album where you actually get a chance to hear them, so their exuberance is understandable.
Dusty just can’t seem to get out of bed on this album, bless her soul. “Breakfast in Bed” is not another sex song, though (bummer!), but a comfort song. The music starts very quietly with a warm-laid back feel before the producers wreck the mood with strings and excessively loud horns. Of all the songs on the album, this is the one that is most damaged by the ham-handed engineering team, and it’s very frustrating because in the din you can tell that Dusty found just the right feel for this piece. Damn! It’s followed by another Randy Newman number, “Just One Smile” where Dusty can be heard more clearly, much to the song’s benefit. It’s not a particularly great song, but Dusty sounds so deeply sincere in trying to save a relationship damaged by misunderstanding that it recalls the wisdom, “it’s the singer, not the song.”
There’s nothing she can do to save “The Windmills of Your Mind,” the most over-recorded piece of shit in the history of the human race and no, you don’t have to remind me that the music was composed by a Frenchman. Why this turkey was chosen for a Memphis Sound album is beyond me. It’s followed by the equally horrid and ill-fitting “In the Land of Make Believe,” which tells you how much I think of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. This one opens with a sitar, one of the least Memphis-sounding instruments on the planet. Two very strange detours indeed.
We thankfully get back to something a bit more soulful with “No Easy Way Down.” This is a relatively weak Goffin-King number saved by Dusty’s performance, which is one of the clearest and strongest on the album. What’s amazing about this piece is how her vocal remains strong and in focus even as she alternates between voiced and near-voiceless phrasing, sometimes switching in mid-phrase. Although the subject matter is hardly romantic (the lyrics deal with failure in life and love), this is a great slow dance number. Forget the words and just let Dusty’s voice guide you with your body pressed ever so close to your lover.
Dusty in Memphis ends with yet another Goffin-King song (that makes three), “I Can’t Make It Alone,” where the theme of seeking forgiveness is too reminiscent of the theme of “Just One Smile” to make it stand out. Not having listened to this album for a long time, I was kind of hoping for something more funky and less maudlin to end an album allegedly flavored with the so-called Memphis Sound.
Dusty in Memphis has been consistently overrated by the critics, some of whom were no doubt motivated by a weird desire to find a white female soul singer who could measure up to the great female voices on Motown and Atlantic. Dusty ranks right up there with the best of them, but that doesn’t give the critics permission to ignore the botched recording or the syrupy arrangements that dampen the groove on over half the tracks. It’s frustrating because there was really no excuse or the poor recording: Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul, released a year before on the same Atlantic label with the same Jerry Wexler as lead producer, featured some beautiful and complementary string arrangements that did not overwhelm the singer or the band. Give me a stripped-down version where it’s just Dusty, The Sweet Inspirations and the funk combo paired with an engineer without a hearing problem and I would probably rate the album much higher. Dusty Springfield was a great singer and she deserved higher quality support than she received in either Memphis or New York.
In My Life was one of the albums playing in the background of my childhood.
My parents were pseudo-hippies in the 1960’s, and fortunately for me, they held on to the 60’s tenet that fucking was a religious rite to be performed with great frequency, a belief they cherished well into their forties and beyond. Like his future daughter, my dad always hated rubbers, and the combination of my mom going off the pill and my dad’s irrepressible horniness eventually led to the blessed accident that was me.
Later than they wanted, but I was worth the wait!
Music was always playing at my house, mostly vinyl LP’s from their days of radical youth. My parents had always been musical explorers, so I was turned onto all kinds of sounds during my formative years. On Sundays, my mother insisted on classical, so I fell in love with Schubert and Segovia. Monday nights were blues revival nights, where I developed passions for Robert Johnson and Mike Bloomfield. What is now called “world music” filled up a couple of evenings a week, interspersed with Beatles, Stones and Kinks. Friday nights were kick-ass rock-and-roll and Saturday nights jazz, or vice versa (one or the other would get them in the mood).
Every now and then, my dad convinced my mother to let up on the classics and turned Sundays into a folk festival. The house was filled with Bert Jansch, Phil Ochs, Malvina Reynolds . . . and this one album by Judy Collins that featured what I thought was the most beautiful song I’d ever heard: Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.”
Judy Collins became kind of blah after she ruined Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” but on this album she was hitting on all cylinders as an interpretiste. In My Life contains songs from Dylan, Richard Fariña, Brecht and Weill, Cohen, Brel, Randy Newman, Donovan and, of course, Lennon & McCartney. The cover must have seemed terribly avant-garde back then; a woman and a cigar were clashing images in the days of dawning liberation. When I was barely old enough to be somewhat aware, I looked at the cover and immediately wanted to be that woman, drink that wine and smoke that cigar.
I would have dumped that horrid outfit for a leather skirt and heels, of course, but in looking back I’m surprised at how much this record influenced my personal view of what a woman should aspire to be.
We open the album filled with gratitude that there are other voices willing to sing Bob Dylan’s songs. Far superior to the original, her rendition of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” opens to the sound of flute, setting a wistful tone to a vocal that comes across as both worldly and tired of the world as is. As the vocal proceeds, the arrangement adds other winds and pizzicato strings, providing ironic contrast to Dylan’s observations of the weaknesses inherent in human nature.
Richard Fariña’s “Hard Lovin’ Loser” comes next, one of the few songs on the album that falls flat due to the ridiculous use of a harpsichord for a song with such hardness at the core. The vocal is fine; it’s the choice of instrument that ruins the mood. Fortunately, Judy knocks it out of the park on the next cut, “Pirate Jenny” from Weill and Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera. If you don’t know the story, Jenny is a maid at a fleabag hotel in a seedy portside neighborhood who fantasizes revenge on the citizenry who humiliate her daily. She conjures up a pirate ship that enters the harbor and blows the town to smithereens except for the hotel. The pirates invade, capture the survivors and bring them all to Jenny, who immediately orders a mass execution. Judy Collins immerses herself in the role, bringing out the essence of Pirate Jenny: more than anything, she revels in her power.
Part of me admired Pirate Jenny, fighter of the evil oppressors, and I found her passion for power titillating. But why did she have to kill them all? That troubled me. Her story spawned in me a dawning appreciation of the explosive tensions of social and economic inequality.
That such a performance is followed by the perfection of her delivery in “Suzanne” may help explain the enduring love I have for this precious remnant of the 1960’s. Like Dylan, Leonard Cohen was better at writing lyrics than singing them, so the essential version of this song belongs to Judy Collins. While I’ve always found the line about Christ to be most intriguing (“Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.”), I responded most fervently to the final passage describing the heroine of the tale:
And she shows you where to look
Amid the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror
I so wanted to be Suzanne!
“La Colombe” from Jacques Brel comes next, delivered with slightly less drama than Brel’s version, making the anti-war message less morally elitist and more accessible. Next she takes on “Marat/Sade” from Peter Weiss’ The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. This song echoed the revolutionary fervor (and the excessively long titles) of the 1960’s, though the 60’s revolution was directed more towards a faceless establishment than the pudgy-faced royals and generals who wound up under the guillotine. Exquisitely delivered, I always find it easy to immerse myself in the drama of her performance.
For a long time I had no idea Randy Newman wrote “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” having associated him in my mind with silly shit like “Short People” and a song or two up for the Oscars. I don’t think he has done anything better than this melancholy masterpiece, which Judy sings with a sense of wistful detachment combined with a hint of bitterness at the state of the human condition:
Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles
With frozen smiles to chase love away
Human kindness is overflowing
And I think it’s going to rain today
Tin can at my feet
Think I’ll kick it down the street
That’s the way to treat a friend
“Sunny Goodge Street” comes from Donovan’s early years before he went way over the top with the flower power stuff. Honestly, I prefer Donovan’s quiet, jazz-tinged version to the carnival arrangement on this record. “Liverpool Lullaby” presents a powerful story of what today we call child abuse, but was then simply the norm of cruelty that characterized the life of the poor seeking relief in ample quantities of cheap liquor.
We then come to a second Cohen song, “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” with a theme of “Isn’t it a long way down?” that is much more vivid, real and powerful than Dylan’s attempt at hard luck on “Like a Rolling Stone.” This is another outstanding dramatic portrayal and I can’t help but feeling that Judy would have been better served sticking with interpretations with drama instead of slipping into soft pop and ersatz folk later in her career. The album ends reflectively with her version of “In My Life,” and while she gives us a competent performance, I remain firm in my belief that no one has ever done a Beatles song as well as The Beatles.
Still, in the end, In My Life remains fresh and unique; the dramatic pieces give it a flavor that is unlike any other record I’ve heard. Judy Collins delivers one exceptional performance after another, and excluding a couple of unfortunate exceptions, the arrangements support those performances.
I now return to my glass of Grenache and a fresh Montecristo, to revel in my power.