As I’ve mentioned ad nauseam recently, I’ve been performing in a big amateur production of a Broadway musical. We do two shows a week all over the country– which is only as big as New Jersey, but hey, that was a good enough start for The Boss. Still, it’s a shlep, to go to another city twice a week after working Ye Olde Day Job, with 27 tons of equipment, giving a big show, then slinking back home very late at night. There’s a team of dedicated volunteer roadies who go in the morning, unload the truck and set up the stage. But then after the show, after greeting the fans and friends, after removing the makeup, everyone pitches in for The Load-Out. Which apparently in Show Business means what we mortals would call the load-up.
It has its own special feeling, this activity of taking apart the scene of the masque–illusion dissembled, post-applause, the adrenaline shuffling back into its pen for the night. So, of course, there’s this one song about that, and that’s what’s been on my mind and in my ears, and that’s our SoTW.
If a Martian came up to me and asked me to play some California music for him, I’d most certainly pick that most quintessential of The Angels, Jackson Browne (b. 1948).
In the 1970s, Jackson started out with a series of five spectacular singer-songwriter albums, introspective with a beat and a hook, about California-based themes such as love, opthamologists, angst and cocaine. Then he contracted acute Political Awareness, addressing himself passionately to issues such as saving the Brazilian Rain Forest Blue Bat and Integrity and Cocaine.
Daryl Hannah and Beau
I enjoy a lot of Jackson’s songs, though I think it’s criminal to mention him in the same breath with his contemporaries James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. Perhaps all three were working out of the same 1970s singer-songwriter idiom, but JT and JM are major artists, and JB is a very talented pop musician. I find his best work touching, effective and affective. But even in his pre-politico preaching days, too often he’s mushy, soppy. Even swishy. But heck, he dated Daryl Hannah, so what do I know about the way these things work in LaLa Land? Anyway, we come not to bash Mr Browne, but to praise him.
The last of his personal/poetic albums was “Running on Empty” (1977), a ‘road album’—all the songs were recorded on stage or in the hotel or the bus, and/or dealt with the experience of performing on tour.
Maurice Williams and Zodiacs
At the tender age of 15, young Maurice Williams of Lancaster, SC was busy writing songs while his friends were out stealing hubcaps (did they have hubcaps in Lancaster, SC in 1953?). At 17, he somehow got himself and his buddies an audition in Nashville, where they recorded Maurice’s ‘Little Darling’ under the name The Gladiolas. It hit #11 on the R&B charts and #41 on the pop charts, but then got covered by a white Canadian group, The Diamonds, and Maurice didn’t need to work again for the rest of his life. But he did, playing fraternity gigs around the South (well, if they had fraternity gigs they must have had hubcaps, no?), and in 1960 Maurice and his current cronies, now known as The Zodiacs, recorded another song he had written back in 1953—to the same girl! ‘Stay’ became as much of a doo-wop icon as its sister piece, and even had the distinction of being the shortest #1 hit ever, clocking in at 1:37. Over the years it was a Top 20 hit for the Four Seasons, Rufus & Chaka Khan, the Hollies, and it’s still sung regularly on Friday nights by many thousands of drunken fraternity boys on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Jackson Browne circa 1977 would end his show (as he does the album “Running on Empty”) with a long, lovely, rambling tribute to his roadies. It’s done on solo piano, and talks about the post-show weariness, the packing up, and that lingering adrenalin that I’ve been tasting so strongly in recent weeks. Here his band slowly rejoins him on-stage, and the song mashes into ‘just one more song’–a revisit to Maurice’s big hit, with the object of affection transformed from that unnamed Little Darlin’ to The Audience. Pretty neat, how these Californians write songs.
Here are the album versions of the combo-song. And here’s a video version from 1982 that works pretty much the same way.
, with the divine Rosemary Butler providing one short verse and David Lindley providing the Maurice Williams falsetto.
I’ve got three more shows to do next week. I’m a professional amateur. No cocaine, no groupies, just a bunch of us enthusiastic townies strutting and fretting our three hours on-stage and backstage, putting on a show and packing it up before we go home to the wife and kids.
Now the seats are all empty Let the roadies take the stage Pack it up and tear it down. They’re the first to come and the last to leave, Working for that minimum wage, They’ll set it up in another town. Tonight the people were so fine, They waited there in line. When they got up on their feet they made the show. And that was sweet but I can hear the sound of slamming doors and folding chairs And that’s a sound they’ll never know. Now roll them cases out and lift them amps Haul them trusses down and get ’em up them ramps. ‘Cause when it comes to moving me You know you guys are the champs. But when that last guitar’s been packed away You know I still want to play, So just make sure you got it all set to go Before you come for this piano.
But the band’s on the bus
And they’re waiting to go
We’ve got to drive all night and do a show in Chicago
or Detroit, I don’t know
We do so many shows in a row
And these towns all look the same.
We just pass the time in our hotel rooms
And wander ’round backstage
Till those lights come up and we hear that crowd
And we remember why we came.
Now we got country and western on the bus, R&B
We got disco in eight tracks and cassettes in stereo
And we’ve got rural scenes & magazines
We’ve got truckers on the CB
We’ve got Richard Pryor on the video
And we got time to think of the ones we love
While the miles roll away.
But the only time that seems too short
Is the time that we get to play.
People you’ve got the power over what we do–
You can sit there and wait or you can pull us through.
Come along, sing the song
You know that you can’t go wrong
‘Cause when that morning sun comes beating down
You’re going to wake up in your town
But we’ll be scheduled to appear
A thousand miles away from here.
People stay just a little bit longer
We want to play just a little bit longer
Now the promoter don’t mind
And the union don’t mind
If we take a little time
And we leave it all behind and sing
One more song
I want you stay just a little bit longer
Please, please, please
Say you will, say you will.
Virginia, if you want gold, you gotta dig beneath the surface. Ok, the aforementioned triptych are gold, but they no longer glitter. The groove has been worn away by the myriad playings. With your permission, I’m going to take you on a quickie tour of some of the lesser known (but in my ears much fresher) fine songs by that very fine group, the Mamas and the Papas.
January 1964, The Beatles capture America, and in their wake the entire British invasion. But ‘Rock’ was an imported delicacy. America was in the throes of the Folk Movement, and all of the incipient attempts to create native rock came from there. Folk-rock. The Byrds’ ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ – April 1965. ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ – July 1965. ‘Sounds of Silence’ – September 1965. The Lovin’ Spoonful’s first album was released in December 1965. The Mamas & the Papas’, January 1966. Al Kooper’s Blues Project in May 1966.
TMatP were a folk-rock group, based on John Phillips acoustic guitar and often-great songs, always great vocals from Denny and Cass, a finely tuned rock engine provided by the all-star studio musician collective The Wrecking Crew, and chock full of terrific grandiose arrangements under the baton of producer Lou Adler. They were, together with The Byrds and The Spoonful, the first creative American rockish groups of significance.
Songwriter/guitarist John Phillips and his cheekboned wife Michelle, together with Denny Doherty, were riding the folk wave as The New Journeymen.
The three of them hooked up with Cass in the Virgin Islands and became The Mamas & the Papas. This whole saga is recounted in ‘Creeque Alley’.
The First Album
It’s the one everyone knows. In addition to the two iconic singles, the only song that holds water for me today is the original ‘Go Where You Wanna Go’, a pretty good song with a progressive attitude towards his wife’s legendary philanderings.
The album includes four forgettable Phillips originals (‘Straight Shooter’, ‘Got a Feelin’, ‘Somebody Groovy’, ‘Hey Girl’); three rock ‘oldies’ slowed down and spruced up with sweet harmonies (the Beatles ‘I Call Your Name’, Bobby Freeman’s ‘Do You Wanna Dance’ and Phil Spector/Ben E. King’s ‘Spanish Harlem’); and closes with a couple of other borrowed fillers (‘You Baby’, ‘The In Crowd’).
That, even for most people willing to look beyond those two consecutive #1 hits, is The Mamas & the Papas. For my two scents, they’re barking up the wrong tree.
The Second Album
Even though the album was a commercial success (#4), I’ll bet you don’t remember it. It included their next single, ‘I Saw Her Again Last Night’ (#5), a fine, fine song, all the fresher for not having been played to death. That was followed by ‘Look Through My Window’, an equally affective description of the tempestuous John/Michelle marriage (she had been temporarily expelled from the group following her affair with Papa Denny, but it only charted at #24. ‘Look Through’ for some reason wasn’t put on this album, only on the third. They scored another satisfying hit with ‘Words of Love’ (#5), the first single to feature Cass as lead vocalist rather than Denny.
But, oh, the rest of that album. You probably listened to it a few times 50 years ago and have therefore forgotten it, although the album reached #4, and should have left more of a mark in our minds. Alas. That’s where the gold is. Six knockout John Phillips originals that you don’t remember. But you should.
‘No Salt On Her Tail’ – a glorious, epic opener, with an organ solo a la KoopeRoolingStone (by Ray Manzarek of the Doors!). According to folklore, putting salt on the tail of a bird prevented it from taking flight. I guess John tried it on Michelle, to little avail.
‘Trip, Stumble & Fall’ is TMatP at their peak – lyrics, composition, arrangement, performance. This is the gold in them thar hills.
‘Dancing Bear’ is an ancient Russian folk tale penned by this LA hippie. The song is beautiful. The arrangement is stunning, years ahead of its time.
Bones Howe (engineer) and Lou Adler (producer) deserve so much of the credit for TMatP’s artistic (and commercial) success. Much like contemporaries Simon & Garfunkel with their engineer Roy Hallee, Howe/Adler/Phillips weren’t just recording ‘songs’, they were creating ‘records’, each cut with its distinctive sound palette, its unique taste and character.
‘I Saw Her Again Last Night’ – okay, you have a fine song, great singers, and The Wrecking Crew providing the drive. But check out those strings! Where else do you find an orchestra serving a rock context so well? In 1965, yet? Kudos, guys.
‘Strange Young Girls’ featuring Michelle, for a change, a portrait of lost hippiettes. For my money, it’s affective and effective.
I don’t have perfect pitch, but I’ve got a pretty sharply honed ear. Does no one else notice the sour tonal near-misses so prevalent in TMatP?
‘Even If I Could‘ – Ahhhh. The strings, the shifting tempi, the major/minor switches, all serving the gestalt of the bittersweet song. Okay, I understand why it never conquered the charts. But what a great example of how a great a great B-side can be.
And our SoTW, a long-time favorite of mine, ‘Once Was a Time I Thought’, an almost a cappella ditty. Lots and lots of syllables that even kind of make sense. Sung in unison until the last three jazz-inflected chords. 1:02 of sweet, lovely music.
‘My Heart Stood Still’ is a 1927 Rogers and Heart tune. If not a standout, it’s respectable. The same could be said for ‘Dancing in the Street’. Okay, Cass ain’t Martha Reeves, but who is? It’s fun. Hey, I like ‘fun’. As long as you don’t overdo it.
The album also includes two Phillips fillers, ‘I Can’t Wait’ and ‘That Kind of Girl’. Well, no one’s perfect. I won’t mention ‘Think for Yourself’ and ‘The Word’ for fear of incurring the wrath of The Beatle police.
Give the album a listen. Tell me what you think. Ain’t that some great music?
The third album “Deliver” was a commercial success (#5), buoyed by aforementioned hits ‘Dedicated to the One I Love’, ‘Creeque Alley’ and ‘Look Through My Window’. Other than that? Don’t bother.
Which holds even truer in their last two albums, both made to fulfill contractual obligations after the group had in essence broken up.
A few years ago I trolled John Phillips solo efforts. They should have been packaged together with most of “Deliver” and all the subsequent recordings and sold as “Fool’s Gold”. Trust me, save your money and your time.
Dion DiMucci was born in 1939 in the Bronx, where he grew up singing on street corners (literally) with his pimply Italian cronies. At 17 he signed a record contract, and as leader of Dion & the Belmonts had a string of major hits including Teenager in Love and I Wonder Why (trust me, you want to watch this clip). He was a big enough star to share the bill with Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper on their fateful winter tour of 1959. Living a life of stardom and dissolution at 20, Dion was already deep into heroin and alchohol addiction. The other three grabbed a ride on a plane to the next show in Iowa, but the $36 ticket cost as much as Dion’s parents’ monthly rent, so he chose to shlep on the bus. Shocked by their deaths, he tried rehab. He broke up the Belmonts, and his solo career continued to climb, with iconic hits such as Runaround Sue and The Wanderer, in which the lyrics were no longer the self-pity of a broken acned heart, but the racy bravado of an ego-driven superstar:
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
They call me the wanderer yeah the wanderer
I roam around around around…
That lyric was far from standard fare for 1960. He moved to a major label (Columbia), continued making hits such as Ruby Baby (in this clip from 1963 Dion is playing guitar, and is clearly an emerging artist, not just another Corner Boy punk). The song is written by Leiber and Stoller, see SoTW 042.
In the coming years he was influenced musically by such luminaries as producer Tom Wilson, executive John Hammond (the men behind Bob Dylan at the time) and keyboard legend Al Kooper, but his addictions led him astray, and he recorded nothing of significance. In 1968, clean of substances and a born-again evangelical, he returned to his original label. They insisted that he record Abraham, Martin and John (written Dick Holler, who also wrote The Royal Guardsmen’s ‘Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron’–I bet you didn’t know that!) He moved to Warner Brothers, the most successful label
of the late 1960s to record a series of singer-songwriter albums which were all commercial failures. We’ll come back to this period in a moment.
In 1975 he was joined up with Phil Spector for a project that was supposed to reboot the careers of both. Spector outdid himself in terms of grandiosity—more than 40 musicians, including a dozen guitarists, seven percussionists, and five pianists.
Only half a dozen tracks were recorded, dark, bizarre, even by Spector standards. Spector couldn’t get the resulting “Born to Be With You” released in the US. Dion disassociated himself from it. Its reputation today is mixed; some (including myself) dismiss it as a megalomaniacal bummer; others, including Stones mentor Andrew Loog Oldham and Who Pete Townshend, call it one of the finest albums ever made.
Over the past 35 years, Dion has continued recording, most frequently in an acoustic blues mode. He’s made many fine albums–modest, mature, honest, well-crafted, serious. In 1990, visiting the Bronx parish of his childhood, he experienced an epiphany and returned to Catholicism. He continues to record and perform, and works as a Renewal Ministry activist. Well, okay.
But let’s go back for a moment to 1969, to a wholly obscure Warner Brothers singer-songwriter effort, the album “Sit Down Old Friend”. I discovered the album back then when I was listening to every single major release, and quite a lot of minor ones. It’s easy to see how Dion’s album went unnoticed in that landmark year of singer-songwriter releases: Dylan’s “New Morning”, James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James”, Joni Mitchell’s “Ladies of the Canyon”, Neil Young’s “After the Goldrush”, Van Morrison’s “Moondance”, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, Cat Stevens’ “Tea for the Tillerman”, and the first albums by Elton John, Stephen Stills, George Harrison and Paul McCartney.
But “Sit Down Old Friend” always shined for me, even in that heady company. It’s almost a demo—just Dion playing classical and steel-stringed guitar on a dozen gems, mostly self-penned. The lyrics of the title song, our Song of The Week, seem more than a bit callow. Unguardedly ingenuous, too good-hearted and sincere and embarrassingly loving. The way I’d probably feel at a spiritual retreat. But when I listen to the song, it becomes something else. Its utter sincerity overcomes all my cynicism. It forces me to remember that truisms are true. Really, what is there for us to do on this earth other than love our fellow man? So, Dion, thanks for ‘Runaround Sue’ and ‘Teenager in Love’. But ‘Sit Down Old Friend’ has never left me over the 40 years since I first made its acquaintance, and it has never failed to affect me. It’s been in my mind and my heart and my ears during not a few rough patches, and it’s lent me a steady and trustworthy arm to lean on. I’d like to give it my ultimate compliment—for me, this is life-changing music. It really does make me want to be a better person.
Sit down old friend, there’s something in my heart that I must tell you.
In the end, there is nothing but love.
Could the world be needing more than love that makes the world go round?
If everybody had it in their heart today, I’d say, to keep love in your heart you gotta give it away.
Then the world would be some great big beautiful loving smiling place,
Hey, love is really all you need to carry around.
To keep love in your heart you gotta spread it around.
I’m changing in myself and I’ve found that I don’t have to be so smart.
The last thing in the world I’d want to do is break somebody’s heart.
If it was up to me I’d gather everybody round and we’d all hold hands.
And we’d say a prayer just for today, we’d pray.
To keep love in our hearts and never let it stray, never let it slip away.
Don’t let it pass you by.
Could the world be needing more than love that makes the world go round?
Sit down old friend, there’s something in my heart that I must tell you.
My little band Vocalocity is doing really well (thanks for asking). We’ve just released a couple of live clips (Ariana Grande’s ‘Problem’, George Harrison’s ‘Here Comes the Sun’–that’s me in black). Now in our fourth year, we perform only custom-written arrangements, which we commission from the very best a cappella arrangers in the world.
Like Ed Randell, the very funky bass of The Swingles. Vocalocity is already enjoying one arrangement of his (Lianne La Havas’s ‘Is Your Love Big Enough?’), so we were negotiating a follow-up. “How about ‘Mrs Robinson’ in a slow funk treatment?” he asked. “Could you hum a few bars,” I asked in half-jest. Two hours later, he sent me a mouth-watering teaser of what’s to come.
After we picked ourselves up off the floor, we started thinking about how to present it to the group. We’re a serious group – they sit and squirm quietly while I explain the lyrics and background to what they’re going to interpret. They all know and love the song, but they’re millenials (it’s not their fault, I keep reminding myself), and I can’t take for granted that they know the song’s context.
And somehow Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Mrs Robinson’ has become more symbol than song. Its connotations outweigh its content. Ask any earthling over the age of 30 about ‘Mrs Robinson’, and they’ll answer, “Oh, yeah, sure, Benjamin, Dustin Hoffman, Joe DiMaggio, “The Graduate”, ‘Dee de dee dee dee dee…’.
And the song. Do you realize what a strange composition ‘Mrs R’ is? It goes like this:
Chorus (And here’s to you…)
Verse (We’d like to know…’)
Chorus (And here’s to you…)
Verse (‘Hide it in a hiding place…)
Verse (‘Sitting on a sofa…’)
Chorus (‘Where have you gone…’).
If you’ve ever thought about the structure of a pop song—it ain’t nothing like that.
And the music. It’s all rootless and shifting and discomfiting. So I went to my Genius-in-Residence, OG, and asked him to explain the song to me. I remember him saying “It’s in the Mixolydian mode.” Then there was something about the chorus being in A but ending on F#, because the tonic makes its way down by fifths to B, then E, then A. But I was snoring deeply by then.
And the lyrics? Paul Simon was the guy you’d bring into your high school English class to show the teacher that M-M-M-My Generation could write poetry. To tell the truth, the three verses are pretty choppy and unfocused. No one remembers them.
Where did the song come from? Well, S&G were flying high on the coattails of ‘Sounds of Silence’ and ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’. They were a little intellectual but yet accessible, seriously fun, the perfect meld of sweet folk with a dash of rock edginess. They were playing in the big leagues, right up there with The Beatles and Dylan.
Mike Nichols caught the S&G bug while he was filming “The Graduate”, a coming-of-age story about (just in case you grew up on Mars) a disaffected and confused college graduate seduced into a summer affair by his father’s partner’s wife, Mrs Robinson. Some went so far as to say it was the story of a Jewish kid with gentile parents.
Nichols (b. Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky, fleeing Nazi Germany at seven with his three year-old brother) first made a name in the improvisational comedy duo Nichols and (Elaine) May, followed by success as a director on Broadway. “The Graduate” was his second Hollywood movie, following Burton/Taylor in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”.
Hollywood in 1967 was very much the provenance of white boxer shorts Republican America. You had your “Beach Blanket Bingo” teen exploitation movies. If you had an art theater in town you might catch an underground indie flick like “You’re a Big Boy Now” or the Maysles brothers or John Cassavetes. But the burgeoning counter-culture was off-limits.
So easy on the ear (and brain) were S&G that The Suits bought Mike Nichols the rights to three new Simon songs for his movie. Paul came up with ‘Punky’s Dilemma’ and ‘Overs’, but neither of them fit the bill. “What about that thing you were working on about Mrs Roosevelt?” Garfunkel asked. “What??” said Nichols. Simon played a scrap, Nichols said, “The song is now called ‘Mrs Robinson’, go finish it.”
The song was only released three months after the movie, and went to #1.
The song is today inextricably entwined with the movie in the minds of everyone familiar with the era. Together, they gave the most perfect expression to the youth revolution sweeping the US and the world. “Plastics.” Nouveau riche-ness. Hypocrisy. The Establishment and The Meaning(lessness) of Life. Initiation into the delicious, irresistible sins of the flesh. Convention and the deconstruction thereof.
But what the hell does the song mean?
It’s clearly excoriating Mrs Robinson, censuring her and reproving her in a way the film doesn’t. Anne Bancroft’s Mrs R is desperate and dislikable, but we’re never far from pitying her. The lyrics of the song, prima facie, have little to do with her. She doesn’t pray, has no spiritual pretentions whatsoever. She couldn’t care less about politics, and she no more belongs in an asylum than any other of the adults in the movie.
But then there’s that last verse, the DiMaggio one. Simon has mythicized America successfully elsewhere – in ‘America’ (from the “Bookends” album which was being composed at the time of “The Graduate”) and in ‘American Tune’ (several years later). [Speaking of which, here’s another fine Ed Randell arrangement for The Swingles.] In the former, he speaks in the voice of a diminutive, lost individual juxtaposed against the vastness of the country. In the latter, he attempts to don the mantle of a spokesman for The American People. With music by Johnny Bach, it borders on the pretentious. I’ll let you decide if it crosses the line.
Speaking of mantles, Paul Simon is a well-known fan of the New York Yankees baseball team. Simon (b. 1941) grew up idolizing Yankee icon Mickey Mantle (played 1951-1968), as did I. Mantle was portrayed as a sort of John F. Kennedy – copiously gifted, plagued by injuries, his talent struggling to perform in a pain-wracked body; while in reality, he was a dissolute farmboy. Nonetheless, he was The Golden Boy of the 1950s/early 60s. In his rookie year of 1951, Mantle replaced the great Joe DiMaggio (1936-1951) in centerfield, a truly mythic passing of – sorry, but that’s the word, folks – the mantle.
Joe DiMaggio began his major league career the year after Babe Ruth retired, and played alongside Lou Gehrig for four years. That alone gave him mythic stature, a flesh-and-bone hero who had stood with the ancients and was replaced by a man who retired the year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
But Joe DiMaggio was so much more. He was the very essence of grace and dignity, a paragon of the nobility of restraint. Joe wasn’t taciturn. He had no more need to speak than does a mountain. Or a god.
Yet it was Mantle that Paul Simon grew up idolizing. Mantle asked Paul why he wasn’t mentioned in the song instead of DiMaggio. Simon replied, “It’s about syllables, Mick. It’s about how many beats there are.” And in Simon’s obituary for DiMaggio in the New York Times, he recounts his conversation with Joe about the song (“The only subject we had in common.) DiMaggio complained that he hadn’t gone away, he was still active. “I said that I didn’t mean the lines literally, that I thought of him as an American hero and that genuine heroes were in short supply..”) Implant video with caption
Well, literal or not, a Jewish kid from Queens standing in centerfield at Yankee Stadium, singing a pop song that has the depth and power of an ageless hymn – that’s mortals mixing with the gods, a page out of the book of Genesis or the Iliad. And then you see Alex Rodriguez – watching Simon singing his paean to a true hero, the Yankee Clipper himself – demeaning those same pinstripes. Ah, what’s become of the world? Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
Longing for that time when the world valued morality, when the world made sense. How should I explain that to the millenials in my band? They’re so far removed from the 1950s (and everything that went before) that I might as well be speaking Akkadian. I guess you just had to be there. Dee de dee dee dee dee…