Posted by jeff on Mar 24, 2017 in Jazz
, New Acoustic
, Song Of the week
Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau — ‘Marcie’
Joni Mitchell — ‘Marcie’
Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau — ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’
Bob Dylan — ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’
I’ve made it a guiding principle of this blog to focus on music I love. Hence, you only know the jolly, positive, coddling Jeff.
Alas, there’s an alter ego lurking in the nether depths of my Critic’s Psyche: the censorious, condemnatory, disparaging, judgmental Jeff, the one those near and dear to me have the misfortune of suffering through.
So this week I’m going to share with you not one but two! new covers of great songs from not one but two! artists I greatly admire. Except I’m going to step on some toes and sour-milk some sacred cows along the way. Bear with me, I promise there will be a happy ending.
Chris Thile (b. 1981) and Brad Mehldau (b. 1970) just released a double CD. I have great admiration for the former, the preeminent jazz pianist around today; immense respect for the latter, a certified MacArthur wunderkind. But I find it a mediocre disk, even boring. I’ve listened to it maybe 25 times in the last two weeks, and most of it still just wafts past my ears.
Perhaps it’s something in the sound of the mandolin. Say what you want, it sounds to me like a toy guitar from the Ozarks, no matter how brilliant the notes are.
Perhaps it’s the fact that Mehldau tends to disappear in collaboration, displaying excessive modesty when he should be leading the band.
That’s why I always prefer listening to him solo. Nowhere to hide, Brad – it’s all painfully vulnerable, exposed, grave and seriously profound, whether he’s playing Bach or Radiohead.
However, there are two cuts on the album that made my head spin. Both are covers of great songs by great artists. And in one way or another, both improve on the original.
# # #
‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, from Dylan’s first real album (of originals).
I don’t say that lightly. The very idea of someone improving on Dylan’s treatment of his own song is fundamentally questionable. “No one sings Dylan like Dylan.” In one of our first SoTWs we wrote about exactly such a case—Fairport Convention singing ‘I’ll Keep It with Mine’. But there, if you’ll pardon the hairsplitting, it’s more Dylan’s fault than Sandy Denny’s achievement. He wrote a gentle, intriguing song and shouted it out, banging on the piano. Fairport just laid back and gave it a suitable, straightforward reading.
Not so with ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, one of Dylan’s first ‘hits’ (popularized by the fine Peter, Paul and Mary cover from late 1963, half a year after the release of “Freewheelin’”). Dylan “borrowed” a lot of the song from fellow folkie Paul Clayton’s ‘Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons’, but the scathing, caustic dismissal of the girl (in retrospect, of course) and the relationship they did/didn’t have is all Dylan aged 22 par excellence. Dylan raised snide, furious, finger-pointing name-calling to a Nobel Prize-level art form.
Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice’ is ironic. He doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t think twice. He’s beating her up verbally, machine-gunning her with his esprits de l’escalier, getting in all the last punches beneath the belt after the bell has rung. It’s all condescension and self-righteousness. He means that he’s going to leave her with a pummeling that will make her regret losing the wonderful Him 10,000 times a day while she’s recuperating.
Chris Thile tells a very different story. It’s all insouciance, nonchalance, cool. What we adults call indifference. There’s no recrimination, no great regrets, because, really, who cares? Who needs a real relationship? Who wants commitment? We were together, it’s getting messy, I’m out of here before I get anything sticky on me.
When Dylan sings “We never did too much talking anyway”, the subtext is ‘little you wasn’t capable of entering a dialogue with wonderful me.”
When Thile sings “But we never really did that much talking anyway”, the subtext is ‘What’s the big deal? It’s not like we talked or anything.”
When Dylan sings “I gave her my heart by she wanted my soul”, he’s accusing her of predatory rapaciousness.
When Thile sings it, with a wonderfully expressive squeal, he’s saying ‘Hey, she tried to scratch my Teflon, man! I’m out of here!’
Now, the question is whether the song holds the potential for both readings. Admittedly, Chris has the distinct advantage of coming from a generation that doesn’t give a fuck about anything.
Want to hear my opinion? I have a lot of respect for Chris’s reading. Dylan’s is a perfect example of why I admire him so much and have no affection for him. He’s really quite obnoxious in his self-righteousness. Chris? He may be as uncommitted as a jellyfish, but at least there are no pretentions about it.
# # #
Photo: Rod Pennington
‘Marcie’, from Joni Mitchell’s first album
I’ve written a series of postings about Joni’s early albums: ‘Cactus Tree’ from the first album; ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’ from the second; ‘For Free’ and ‘Woodstock’ from the third; ‘Blue’ and ‘River’ from the fourth. Someday I’ll get to the enigmatic, elusive ‘For the Roses’.
The first album occupies a place in my heart for a number of reasons, as I wrote in SoTW 106: She was unknown, she was mine. It was the first collaboration of David Crosby (producer) and Stephen Stills (bass), a harbinger of things to come. It was the music she was singing when I met her in Nashville with Bob Dylan on the Johnny Cash show.
It’s a groundbreaking album. Together with Laura Nyro (who released her first album in February, 1967, and her masterpiece “Eli & the 13th Confession” the same month as Joni’s first, March 1968) they gave a new voice to the nascent new womanhood.
But most of all, it’s just a very fine album. Every song on Joni’s first album is a perfectly crafted gem of a vignette from her first taste of independence as a newly liberated woman, Greenwich Village.
I sat up straight and smiled broadly when I first heard Chris Thile’s ‘Marcie’. It was for me an utterly refreshing look at an old friend. It’s a fine example of the justification for covers, shining new light on great music. Not a revelation, perhaps, but certainly a revealing of truths I had previously not seen.
If ‘Don’t Think Twice’ is all about Thile’s plinky mandolin, here it’s Brad’s elegant, legato accompaniment that carries the arrangement. Even Thile’s vocal is serving the tone set by Brad.
Thile/Mehldau’s reading isn’t so different from the original. It’s the same girl with the same predicament – living her life, but thinking only of the man not calling. But it does shed light some of the limitations of Joni’s music. That’s not a criticism – Joni’s reading is full, convincing, unassailable, memorable. But you’ve always got the road not taken – every choice you make means passing on the alternative, never to be explored. At least until someone comes along and covers your song.
Chris’s treatment is so much more intimate, fraught with so much empathy. In contrast, Joni sounds removed, distant. As painfully confessional as Joni is at her best, the exposure is in the lyrics. Her carefully controlled tremelo sounds just a little standoffish in comparison with Chris’s candor. She is here at her most precious –just a little too delicate, too refined. She’s presenting a finely crafted portrait. Chris is lamenting the predicament of a Marcie he feels for.
Still, he’s singing Joni’s song. It’s the difference between a creative artist and a performing artist. You gotta give the nod to creator. You just got to.
# # #
You don’t need “Chris Thile/Brad Mehldau” to justify the standing of Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell. People will be singing their praises and their songs “somewhere ages and ages hence”. But they are not the end of even their own story. They’ve given us – and Brad and Chris – a legacy to explore, to build on, and maybe even here and there to serve as an inspiration for genuine and new readings that amplify and enhance the originals.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:
Brad Mehldau SoTWs
Chris Thile SoTWs
Bob Dylan SoTWs
Joni Mitchell SoTWs
Posted by jeff on Mar 17, 2017 in Rock
, Rock and Roll
, Song Of the week
Chuck Berry – ‘Too Much Monkey Business’
Bob Dylan – ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’
© Mark Seliger
I don’t know bubkes about hip-hop, and I can’t say I feel any pervasive sense of inadequacy or overwhelming need to learn. The sum total of my ignorance is from good-old Wikipedia: “Hip Hop” usually refers to Hip-Hop music, aka MCing, aka rapping. But Hip-Hop culcha is also marked by DJing/scratching, breakdancing, and graffiti writing. There’s some conceptual dissonance in the parallelism of that list, but I guess that’s the point.
I’ve seen enough of it at the gym to know that ‘rapping’ is chants rhymed verse to a strong 4/4 beat, and that the attitude is distinctly anti-establishment. There’s Gangsta Rap, there’s West Coast rap, but there’s apparently no Republican rap – unless I missed something by Pat Boone.
The origins of rap have been attributed to everything from Pigmeat Markam’s ‘Here Come the Judge’ (1968, Chess Records) to the opening scene of “Music Man” (1962) to Glenn Miller’s ‘The Lady’s in Love with You’ (1939), not to mention Woody Guthrie’s talking blues, Gilbert & Sullivan and the Beat Poets.
Who yo’ daddy?
Even Rolling Stone Magazine has asked “Is Bob Dylan Hip-Hop’s Godfather?” Sure, there’s the obvious heavy, in-your-face, chunky, chutzpadik rhyming, performed by a sullen, gum-chewing, too-inured-to-touch punk. Oh, the world’s such a mess but I’m so cool.
Of course, the quintessential expression of that particular Dylan persona is ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, the opening track on “Bringing It All Back Home” (March, 1965). This was a few months before the infamous Newport Folk Festival Fiasco. The album was the public’s first exposure to Electric Bob, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ the first-punch KO.
It’s eight minutes of frenetic, seditious lyrics packed into 2:22, immortalized by the famous visual gag in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary “Don’t Look Back”, in which Poker-Faced Bob peels off key words in a series of cardboard signs in an alley with Allen Ginsberg (in a tallis?) chatting in the background.
Johnny’s in the basement/Mixing up the medicine/I’m on the pavement/Thinking about the government/The man in the trench coat/Badge out, laid off/Says he’s got a bad cough/Wants to get it paid off.
Look out kid/It’s somethin’ you did/God knows when/But you’re doin’ it again/You better duck down the alley way/Lookin’ for a new friend/The man in the coon-skin cap/By the big pen/Wants eleven dollar bills/You only got ten.
Maggie comes fleet foot/Face full of black soot/Talkin’ that the heat put/Plants in the bed but/The phone’s tapped anyway/Maggie says that many say/They must bust in early May/Orders from the D.A.
Look out kid/Don’t matter what you did/Walk on your tiptoes/Don’t try “No-Doz”/Better stay away from those/That carry around a fire hose/Keep a clean nose/Watch the plain clothes/You don’t need a weatherman/To know which way the wind blows.
Get sick, get well/Hang around a ink well/Ring bell, hard to tell/If anything is goin’ to sell/Try hard, get barred/Get back, write braille/Get jailed, jump bail/Join the army, if you fail.
Look out kid/You’re gonna get hit/But users, cheaters/Six-time losers/Hang around the theaters/Girl by the whirlpool/Lookin’ for a new fool/Don’t follow leaders/Watch the parkin’ meters.
Ah get born, keep warm/Short pants, romance, learn to dance/Get dressed, get blessed/Try to be a success/Please her, please him, buy gifts/Don’t steal, don’t lift/Twenty years of schoolin’/And they put you on the day shift.
Look out kid/They keep it all hid/Better jump down a manhole/Light yourself a candle/Don’t wear sandals/Try to avoid the scandals/Don’t wanna be a bum/You better chew gum/The pump don’t work/’Cause the vandals took the handles.
The song’s impact was ubiquitous. John Lennon was so overwhelmed when he first heard it, he was quoted as saying he didn’t know how he would ever compete. The 1960s radical communist group the Weathermen took their name from the song’s famous line, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” (The Weathermen went on to bomb several political targets in the late sixties.) A 2007 study of legal opinions and briefs found that that was the song line most often cited by judges and lawyers. For many of us, ‘Twenty years of schoolin’ and they put you on the day shift’ expressed the essence of the baby boomers’ abrupt collision with economic reality. (My first job after graduating with a BA in English Lit in 1969 was actually the night shift in a Pepsi Cola bottling factory.)
But the line my friends and I loved most was ‘The pump don’t work ‘cause the vandals took the handles.’ Fifty years on, it still loiters around my consciousness.
So if ‘SHB’ is the daddy of rap, who’s its forefather? Dylan: “It’s from Chuck Berry, a bit of ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ and some of the scat songs of the Forties.”
If you had to pick one person to credit as the father of rock and roll, it would probably be Charles Edward Anderson Berry (b. 1926). Brian Wilson says Chuck wrote “all of the great songs and came up with all the rock & roll beats.” And Brian should know. John Lennon said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” We’re not going to try to discuss the totality of Chuck’s songwriting, guitarism, lyric sophistication, showmanship, or musical impact here. His oeuvre and artistry won’t share the stage with anyone. Today we just want to credit him as
The Grandaddy of Rap
When Chuck received the PEN award from the JFK Library, Dylan wrote him: “To Chuck, the Shakespeare of rock and roll, congratulations on your PEN award, that’s what too much monkey business will get ya… Say hello to Mr. Leonard [Cohen, another recipient], Kafka of the blues, and Lord Byron Keith (Richards) if he shows up. In all seriousness, Chuck, congratulations on this prestigious honor. You have indeed written the book with a capital B, and congratulations to Leonard, who’s still writing it – Bob Dylan”
‘Too Much Monkey Business’ was released as the B Side of ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’ (a 1956 euphemism for ‘brown-skinned’). The insistent beat, rapid rhymes, monotonous reliance on a single chord, the disaffected litany of kvetching – people who know a lot more than I do about rap have credited it as a seminal progenitor. (Listening to the guitar solo, I can’t help but remember a take on it that I saw in a Mothers of Invention concert in 1966 – Frank Zappa playing the guitar break on ‘Louie, Louie’, a single note that must have gone on for three minutes.)
Here’s Chuck performing it with acolyte Keith Richards in 1987. He may be past his prime, but check out his dance at 1:20 in the clip. Here’s Hippie Chuck performing it in 1969. And just to remember what he looked like in his hey-day (1959), here he is performing ‘Little Queenie’.
‘Too Much Monkey Business’ isn’t even one of Chuck’s dozen greatest songs, but it is one of his most influential. It’s been covered by no less than Elvis (a knock-out treatment, well worth listening to), The Beatles (an unreleased BBC recording), and other British Invaders such as The Hollies (that’s Graham Nash with the white guitar), The Kinks, and Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds (1964).
So, hey, all you hotshot gangstas out there – who da meanest mothafucker you on da block? Y’all listen up to yo’ grandaddy:
Running to and fro/Hard working at the mill/Never fails, in the mail/There comes a rotten bill–Ahh–/Too much monkey business,/Too much monkey business,/Too much monkey business/For me to be involved with.
Salesman talking to me,/Tryin’ to run me up a creek,/Says you can buy it, go on try it,/You can pay me next week–Ahh–/Too much monkey business…
Pay phone, something’s wrong,/Dime gone, will mail,/Oughta sue the operator/For telling me a tale./Too much monkey business, …
Blonde hair, good-lookin’,/Trying to get me hooked,/Wants me to marry, get a home,/Settle down, write a book./Too much monkey business, …
Been to Yokohama, been/fighting in the war,/Army bunk, army chow,/Army clothes, army car./Too much monkey business, …
Same thing every day,/Getting up, goin’ to school./No need for me complaining,/My objection’s overruled–Ahh–/too much monkey business, …
Working in the filling station,/Too many tasks,/Wipe the windows, check the oil,/Check the tires, dollar gas–Ahh–/Too much monkey business,/Too much monkey business,/I don’t want your vib-o-rations, get away/and leave me alone.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:
122: George Harrison (The Beatles), ‘You Know What to Do’ b/w Buddy Holly, ‘You’re the One’
087: Bob Dylan, ‘Black Diamond Bay’
162: The Everly Brothers, ‘Crying in the Rain’
Posted by jeff on Nov 10, 2016 in Rock
, Song Of the week
I’ve had Panama hats on my mind recently (if not on my head), for reasons we won’t go into now. I don’t know what association pops into your Panama-hat-holder, but for me it’s Bob Dylan’s neglected masterpiece, ‘Black Diamond Bay’ from the last of his great albums, ‘Desire’ (1976).
It’s a cinematic tour de force, a dreamed narrative from a movie that you’ve never quite seen, hovering just beyond the horizon of your consciousness. You know every cliché, even the ones you’re aware Dylan is inventing as you watch.
“Art is the perpetual motion of illusion,” Dylan said. Well, this here song is a rolling series of wry and memorable images set against the backdrop of thunder in the distance.
Dylan had been honing his ‘gallery of rogues’ technique since the glory days of “Highway 61 Revisited” (‘Desolation Row’, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’), and he was no stranger to riotous, surrealistic narratives (‘Motorpsycho Nightmare’, even ‘Talkin’ World War III Blues’). But it seems to me that this mini-genre hits its peak here and in the sterling ‘Lilly, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ (a cowboy movie gone awry, with our masked hero, his band of robbers, the hanging judge, two heroines, and Big Jim, who ‘owned the town’s only diamond mine’). The two songs have a great deal in common – the dreamlike, half-logical narrative; the objective, cinematic descriptions; the brilliant use of hackneyed images; but especially the humor. On the one hand, every line is hilarious. On the other hand, it’s all deadly serious. And on the third, in the final accounting it’s only a dream, so it dissipates anyway.
But what a ride.
What do we have here? A hotel on a tropical island. Guests and employees: Our Lady of Panama Hat, the suicidal Greek, the desk clerk, a soldier finding manly love with a tiny hustler, a loser in the casino and his French-speaking dealer. And in the last stanza, our narrator watching the events on Cronkite.
We have the foibles of human Desire (compulsive gambling, suicide, street-corner bargains, back-room illicit sex), juxtaposed against the apocalypse – the volcano is exploding, the island is sinking, and the very stars are falling from the sky.
But, oh, how that doesn’t do the song justice! The embarrassment of the Greek needing to ask for a pen that works – so that he can write his suicide note – while the ground is literally caving in beneath his feet. Or check out the oblique humor in the vocal phrasing, the melody and the lyric of the penultimate line of each stanza: the Greek is about to hang himself, has put a sign on his door “Do Not Disturb” – “She knocked upon it anyway.” Chaos, chaos everywhere.
Jacques Levy (1935-2004), an American theater director (Sam Shepard, “Oh! Calcutta!”, the musical version of “Marat/Sade”), English professor (Colgate) and clinical psychologist, ostensibly co-wrote the song. But it’s 100% Dylan, so I don’t know how much room there was for collaboration.
The song is from “Desire”, the last of Dylan’s great albums. It comes after his masterpiece “Blood on the Tracks” (if you don’t know it, dig up the NY Sessions version, and go lock yourself in a room without any sharp items) and before the embarrassing “Hard Rain”. As uneven as “Desire” is, Dylan would never again scale these heights.
The album was made in notoriously disorganized circumstances. I’m not a historian of the Rolling Thunder Revue, but the album to my ears has a uniform sound, notwithstanding the jagged collection of songs. Notable in the sound are prominent drums (Howie Wyeth), violin (Scarlet Rivera), and the then-unknown backing vocalist Emmylou Harris.
The album includes a surprising number of songs among Dylan’s best-known and most widely popular which yours truly considers to be utterly a waste of wax – ‘Isis’, ‘Joey’, and ‘Sara’, three headache-inspiring, long and dreary and utterly forgettable annoyances. And if someone wants to tell me what a heart-wrenching account of the breakup of his marriage “Sara” is, I refer him to ‘Dirge’ from “Planet Waves”. That’s a song that’s too intense and pained for me to listen to.
And I’m ambivalent about the hit ‘Hurricane’, and ‘Romance in Durango’ is a rather diluted blessing. But there are gems. ‘Mozambique’ is a charmer, and there are a handful of songs that rank with Dylan’s very best, most notably the companion pieces ‘One More Cup of Coffee’, ‘Oh Sister’, two songs that Leonard Cohen would have given his right angst to have written.
And our song, ‘Black Diamond Bay’, which I’m pleased as punch to present to you. So just put on a Panama hat and a grin, take a long, cool drink out onto the veranda, and be very thankful that the ground beneath your feet is solid.
And you know what, readers? Just because you’re so loyal, I’ll even toss in a couple of covers of songs Dylan wrote for the album which didn’t make the cut, and which he never recorded: ‘Abandoned Love’, here by none other than Don and Phil Everly, and ‘Rita Mae’ (for author Rita Mae Brown) by none other than Jerry Lee Lewis. A Jewish kid from a small town in Minnesota, with The Everly Bros and Jerry Lee scrambling for his scraps. Can you imagine?
Up on the white veranda she wears a necktie and a Panama hat;
Her passport shows a face from another time and place, she looks nothing like that.
And all the remnants of her recent past are scattered in the wild wind.
She walks across the marble floor
Where a voice from the gambling room is calling her to come on in.
She smiles, walks the other way
As the last ship sails and the moon fades away from Black Diamond Bay/
As the morning light breaks open, the Greek comes down and he asks for a rope and a pen that will write.
“Pardon, monsieur,” the desk clerk says, carefully removes his fez, “Am I hearing you right?”
And as the yellow fog is lifting the Greek is quickly heading for the second floor.
She passes him on the spiral staircase thinking he’s the Soviet Ambassador.
She starts to speak, but he walks away
As the storm clouds rise and the palm branches sway on Black Diamond Bay
A soldier sits beneath the fan doing business with a tiny man who sells him a ring.
Lightning strikes, the lights blow out, the desk clerk wakes and begins to shout, “Can you see anything?”
Then the Greek appears on the second floor in his bare feet with a rope around his neck.
While a loser in the gambling room lights up a candle, says, “Open up another deck”
But the dealer says “Attendez-vous, s’il vous plait.”
As the rain beats down and the cranes fly away from Black Diamond Bay.
The desk clerk heard the woman laugh as he looked around in the aftermath, and the soldier got tough.
He tried to grab the woman’s hand, said, “Here’s a ring, it cost a grand.”
She said, “That ain’t enough.”
Then she ran upstairs to pack her bags while a horse-drawn taxi waited at the curb.
She passed the door that the Greek had locked where a handwritten sign read, “Do not disturb.”
She knocked upon it anyway.
As the sun went down and the music did play on Black Diamond Bay.
“I’ve got to talk to someone quick,” but the Greek said, “Go away” and he kicked the chair to the floor.
He hung there from the chandelier, she cried, “Help, there’s danger near
Please open up the door!”
Then the volcano erupted and the lava flowed down from the mountain high above.
The soldier and the tiny man were crouched in the corner thinking of forbidden love.
But the desk clerk said, “It happens every day.”
As the stars fell down and the fields burned away on Black Diamond Bay
As the island slowly sank the loser finally broke the bank in the gambling room.
The dealer said, “It’s too late now, you can take your money, but I don’t know how
you’ll spend it in the tomb.”
The tiny man bit the soldier’s ear as the floor caved in and the boiler in the basement blew.
While she’s out on the balcony, where a stranger tells her “My darling, je vous aime beaucoup.”
She sheds a tear and then begins to pray.
As the fire burns on and the smoke drifts away from Black Diamond Bay.
I was sittin’ home alone one night in L.A. watching old Cronkite on the seven o’clock news.
It seems there was an earthquake that left nothing but a Panama hat and a pair of old Greek shoes.
Didn’t seem like much was happening, so I turned it off and went to grab another beer.
Seems like every time you turn around there’s another hard-luck story that you’re gonna hear,
And there’s really nothing anyone can say.
And I never did plan to go anyway to Black Diamond Bay.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy these SoTWs:
008: ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’, Fairport Convention (Bob Dylan)
016: Bob Dylan, ‘Percy’s Song’
SoTW is a non-commercial, non-profit venture, intended solely to promote the appreciation of good music. Readers are strongly encouraged to purchase the music discussed here at sites such as Amazon
Posted by jeff on Nov 4, 2016 in Rock and Roll
, Song Of the week
Bobby Vee, ‘The Night Has a Thousand Eyes’
Bobby Vee (1943-2016) died last week at 73 from complications arising from Alzheimer’s. That’s pretty surprising, considering that he’s still an 18-year old pop star and I’m still a pimply 13-year old with my ear glued to a Top 40 transistor radio. They say inside every man there’s a 15-year old screaming “What the fuck happened????”
February 3, 1959, the day the music died. Fifteen year old Robert Velline was prepping to see the first rock-and-roll show to hit Fargo, ND, home of:
- PDQ Bach (Peter Schickele)
- Roger* Maris (did you know that Babe Ruth held the record for home runs in a single season for 34 years, and Roger* for 37?)
- Actress Kristin Rudrüd (who played William H. Macy’s wife in the Coen brothers’ film “Fargo”, which was of course set in…).
Bad news on the doorstep
But in February, 1959, rock and roll was just reaching Fargo. Bobby and a couple of friends had formed a band two weeks earlier. Bobby came home from school for lunch, and found bad news on the doorstep. Headliners Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper had been killed that night in a plane crash, on their way to Fargo.
A call went out from KFGO, Fargo’s Top 40 station. Was there a local group that could step in and help the show go on? Bobby’s mom ran out to buy the boys matching sweaters and ties, his dad came up with the name The Shadows, and the boys cram-rehearsed all the Buddy Holly songs they could play.
Though the scars of that night haven’t yet healed (see ‘American Pie’), Bobby and the boys were a hit. By June they had recorded a Bobby-penned Buddy Holly-cloned single, ‘Suzie Baby’, virtually indistinguishable from the master himself. The song went world-famous in Minnesota.
The boys decided they needed a pianist, and auditioned a kid from Hibbing who introduced himself as Elston Gunnn, but whose real name was Bobby Zimmerman. He played a few gigs with The Shadows, then left for Omaha where he had gotten a job as a carburetor out at the hot-rod races every Thursday night.
In 2013, Elston (now more widely known as Blind Boy Grunt) was playing a show in St Paul, where he said:
“Thank you everyone, thank you friends. I lived here a while back, and since that time, I’ve played all over the world, with all kinds of people. And everybody from Mick Jagger to Madonna. And everybody in there in between. I’ve been on the stage with most of those people. But the most beautiful person I’ve ever been on the stage with, was a man who is here tonight, who used to sing a song called “Suzie Baby”. I want to say that Bobby Vee is actually here tonight. Maybe you can show your appreciation with just a round of applause. So, we’re gonna try to do this song, like I’ve done it with him before once or twice.”
Sounds fabricated? You can see it, right here. Elston also recalled that Vee “had a metallic, edgy tone to his voice and it was as musical as a silver bell.” Vee for his part remembered Elston Gunn “played pretty good in the key of C.” But we get ahead of ourselves.
Snuff and Bobby
The Elston-less Bobby Vee and The Shadows were signed by Liberty Records in LA and assigned to the tutelage of a Texan high-school dropout, the 19-year old Snuff Garrett. Snuff went on to work with Sonny Curtis, Johnny Burnette, Brenda Lee, Roy Rogers, Gene McDaniels, Buddy Knox, Walter Brennan, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, Del Shannon, Sonny & Cher, Cher and JJ Cale. He gave Leon Russell and one Phil Spector their first jobs in the business. Walter Brennan and Phil Spector—I’m not making it up.
Snuff took Bobby to Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, NM, where Buddy had gotten his start. Their version of an old R&B cut by The Clovers (who did the original version of the Leiber-Stoller classic ‘Love Potion #9’), ‘Devil or Angel’, went to #6 nationally, as did their next single, ‘Rubber Ball’ (co-composed by Gene Pitney under his mother’s maiden name).
Snuff took a shopping trip to New York to shop at the Brill Building, where he was offered a tune by the young husband-and-wife team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, who had just had their first #1 hit with The Shirelles’ ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’. Dion had recorded it, but wasn’t planning on releasing it. Snuff felt that the song lacked a kick, so Carole added the “My tears have fallen” intro. It sounded like this. Bobby’s version went to #1, his only one, Goffin-King’s second of many.
Bobby had 36 songs in the Top 100, mostly in the pre-Beatles early ‘60s. You’ll forgive me for not giving you all 36. Or not. But as far as I’m concerned, you’re going to have to make due with a few of my favorites:
- ‘Run to Him‘ – #2, written by Goffin and Jack Keller, another member of the Brill-based Aldon Music stable, which had 54 top ten songs between 1960 and 1963.
- ‘Sharing You‘ – Goffin-King, #15
Both of these seem to me clearly influenced by Roy Orbison’s ‘Running Scared’ – conflicted love triangles in which the narrator is wrenched with fear and anxiety, 2’15” melodramas in a minor key, climbing single-mindedly from the tense git-go to an operatic climax without a detour into a chorus. Oh, the drama in those three songs, fantastical passions for a bored and horny 15-year old boy from the suburbs, each one grist for an entire soap.
- ‘Punish Her‘ – #20; don’t worry all you politico-correctnessers, you’re supposed to “kill her with kindness” and “blind her with kisses”
- ‘Charms‘ – #13, a charmer of a song, written by brilliant Brillers Helen Miller and Howard Greenfield
- ‘Be True to Yourself‘ – #34, fine advice for all seasons, Burt Bacharach and Hal David at their Brill best
And last but certainly not least in the list, my personal favorite, the song I choose to remember Bobby by:
It was kept out of the top spot by Paul & Paula’s ‘Hey Paula’ and The Rooftop Singers’ ‘Walk Right In’. Competition was stiff before The Fab Four took over.
Bobby’s ‘The Night Has a Thousand Eyes’ was written by Benjamin Weisman, Dorothy Wayne, and Marilyn Garrett. I don’t know nothin’ about the two ladies, but this is what Elvis (Presley) had to say about Mr Weisman (at a bacchanalian post-Vegas run party, shortly before The King died): “I want you all to meet Ben Weisman. The man who has written more songs for me than any other writer – 57! I want to hear it for this man”.
What can I say about it? Not too much, really. It’s a pop song. Charming and catchy. The stuff of my innocent youth. I readily admit that when I was listening to it in 1962, I didn’t visualize it like this freakish, bizarre clip. The director is uncredited, but I sure hope he wasn’t allowed out unsupervised.
Bobby’s tune shouldn’t be confused with
- The 1948 film noir in which Edward G. Robinson plays a New Orleans nightclub fortune teller who unwittingly becomes a psychic, bleakly predicting all sorts of mayhem.
- Or the theme song from the movie, performed here by Harry Belafonte (with the Zoot Sims Quartet), here in a cool live clip by Stan Getz.
Bobby’s song has had numerous covers, including by Jennifer Connelly (from the movie “Dark City”, better on the eyes than on the ears) and American Idol Vegas Week, one of the ugliest, most aesthetically offensive clips I’ve ever had the misfortune to watch 8 seconds of.
So, Bobby, what shall we say in parting? R.I.P. Thanks for the hits, thanks for the mini-dramas, thanks for the memories. We’ll remember you fondly. And who knows, maybe Elston Gunnn will play ‘Suzie Baby’ or ‘Take Good Care of My Baby’, or even ‘The Night Has a Thousand Eyes’ at the ceremony in Stockholm next month.