054: Mickey & Sylvia, ‘Love is Strange’

Posted by jeff on Jun 11, 2015 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Mickey & Sylvia, ‘Love is Strange’

A long-time colleague left our place of work recently, a young woman with some interest in ‘old’ music (from the twentieth century). She asked for a compilation CD as a going-away present. A compilation CD, as you may or may not know, is the primary form of expression of a certain breed of arrested development baby-boomers, post-baby-boomers, and neo-baby-boomers. I recently read a painfully perceptive portrayal of this particular form of autism in Nick Hornsby’s novel “High Fidelity”.

Anyway, I slapped together a whole pile of music I thought might appeal to this person, but I didn’t invest enough time, energy or thought in it to give it a really distinctive theme (the way you’re supposed to, for compilation CDs). So when I needed to label it I was really stuck, and a bit embarrassed, as it seemed to be a profound and fundamental transgression of some self-imposted, arbitrary, adolescent rule. I called it ‘Indefensible Mix’.

And do you know what song jumped out at her, from way back in the 1900s? A very lovely easy-listening cut by the British duo Everything But The Girl, ‘Love is Strange‘ (nice clip!). EBTG was Ben Watt (guitars, arrangements, backing vocals) and Tracey Thorn (unforgettable lead vocals). They got together in 1982, and took their name from a sign placed in the window of a local furniture shop, which claimed “for your bedroom needs, we sell everything but the girl.” They’ve had a surprising and successful second career as mix artists (I choose to not fully grasp what that implies). But what appeals to me is their first career, which included a whole string of tasteful, stripped-down acoustic covers (and some originals), often with jazzy underpinnings. The long list of lovely hits includes Rod Stewart’s ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It‘; a very successful version of one of the most-recorded songs I know from recent years, Cindy Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’, and my very favorite, the EBTG original ‘Each and Every One‘.

But of course when the young lady focused on ‘Love Is Strange’, it sent me right back to the original version. Before Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. Before Peaches & Herb. Before Don and Phil Everly. Before Lonnie Donegan. Even before Buddy Holly. Before all the movies and TV shows it has appeared in, including the silly ‘sexy’ cha-cha scene (supposedly spontaneous and improvised) in the movie ‘Dirty Dancing’ and (so I read in Wikipedia) ‘Deep Throat’.

The inspiring original was a #1-hit wonder in 1957 by Mickey ‘Guitar’ Baker and his guitar student Little Sylvia Vanderpool (later Robinson). The song features provocative verbal interplay between Mickey and Sylvia, a memorable guitar riff, a quasi-Latin beat, a catchy melodic line and an indelible harmony. They recorded a bunch of other R&B material, but nothing else stuck in our collective AM mind. Here’s a clip of their ‘Dearest’ (which Buddy Holly also recorded) with a bunch of really great photos. And here are the very forgettable ‘No Good Lover’ and ‘Oh Yeah! Uh Huh‘. But you will be pleased to learn, as I was, that Mickey had a great career as a very popular studio guitarist at the time. And Sylvia not only had a #3 hit sleaze soul hit in 1973 with ‘Pillow Talk’, as explicit for 1973 as ‘Love Is Strange’ was for 1957; but also in the 1980s the little lady became a producer for the Sugar Hill label and a major force in the emergence of rap music.

It’s interesting that many of the talented covering artists try to copy the seductive repartee from M&S, and none come close to achieving the raw, coy, playful tone of the original. That Sylvia Vanderpool must have been one heck of a, um, lady.

Love Is Strange’ it turns out was written by the great Bo Diddley, published under the name of his wife, Ethel Smith, but released only in 2007 as a bonus track on ‘I’m a Man: The Chess Masters, 1955-1958’. As much as I admire Mr Diddley, I’ve sure been enjoying listening to Mickey & Sylvia, to Everything But The Girl, and to all the other fine versions over the years. And as one of those compulsive compilationists, I think I’ll go on touting it for all the young ‘uns out there in whose ears it still seems to find pleasure, 50+ years on.



057: Anita O’Day, ‘Tea for Two

Posted by jeff on Jun 6, 2015 in Jazz, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Anita O’Day, ‘Tea for Two’ at the Newport Jazz Festival, 1958

One of the first songs you ever learned, the soundtrack to your skating lessons at the rink, one of the songs hardest wired into your brain, is the ubiquitous ‘Tea for Two’. This week we’re going to trip over a few yellow bricks on memory lane, but with an ulterior purpose at the end.
The song was written by Vincent Youmans with lyrics by Irving Caesar for the musical No, No, Nanette in 1925, when Vaudeville was still transmogrifying into musical theater. Here’s what the original version sounded like.

But ‘Tea for Two’ quickly became a fundament in our collective musical consciousness. Among the notable performances:

  • Dmitri Shostakovich and his friend the conductor Nickolai Malko listened to a recording of the song in 1927. The conductor bet the composer 100 rubles that he couldn’t completely reorchestrate the song from memory in under an hour. The maestro did it in 45 minutes, the result of which (Opus 16) was incorporated as the entr’acte “Tahiti Trot” in his opera “The Golden Age”.
  • Art Tatum set the standard for technical dexterity in jazz piano with the florid right hand improvisation in his classic 1933 recording
  • Doris Day (“Isn’t she cute?” Barf) even took the song as the name of her movie and recorded a duly virginal version in 1951.
  • Tommy Dorsey‘s iconic cha-cha version was a Number #1 hit in 1958 (people I grew up with and under actually thought this was cool)
  • Liberace recorded it sometime in the 1950s. I only got through 30 seconds of this, so if someone out there makes it to the end, you let me know how it turns out. And if that isn’t enough for you, there are also versions by Ray Conniff and Mitch Miller. I hope you do understand that these are references for the tasteless and the obsessive out there, not my recommendations.
  • Thelonious Monk incorporated it as ‘Skippy’ into his own quirky, inimitable vocabulary of cubist jazz in 1962 (that is a recommendation)
  • The Muppets (Rowlf and Lew Zealand) even get in their two cents’ worth, singing the song backwards (well, The Beatles did it first on ‘Rain’, but it’s still pretty cool)
  • But my favorite, by a longlonglong shot, is Anita O’Day‘s rendition of the song at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.

Anita O’Day died in 2006 after a long and turbulent life–lots of marriages, affairs, alcohol, drug addiction, prison, as documented in her harrowing autobiography “High Times Hard Times”. But my, that girl could sing. She’s a distinguished member – my favorite, actually – of the very elite club of 1950s white female ‘cool’ jazz vocalists (June Christy, Rosemary Clooney, Sheila Jordan, Helen Merrill, Peggy Lee, Julie London). They started as soloists for big bands of the mid-1940s (Anita sang with Gene Krupa, Woody Herman, and Stan Kenton), then as soloists, working in the wake of the bebop idiom. This meant singing mostly standards from the Great American Songbook in a swinging style but with great emotional reserve, and lots of scat improvisation, random vocables and nonsense syllables or without words at all, improvising on melodies and rhythms, the equivalent of an instrumental solo but here using the voice.

The Newport Jazz Festival was held every summer in Newport, Rhode Island from 1954 to 1972. It served as a conclave for all the jazz greats of the time and inspired a very large number of live albums and quite a few legendary performances, notably Duke Ellington’s in 1956. The 1958 festival was captured in a very fine film, “Jazz on a Summer’s Day“, well worth looking up, with great 1950s jazz and an astoundingly evocative gallery of toddlers, lovers and hipsters. This is what a film of a music festival should be, and it’s as precise a portrayal of a place and time as you’re likely to run into. It features Jimmy Giuffre, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Stitt, Dinah Washington, Gerry Mulligan, Chico Hamilton and Louis Armstrong, but Anita’s performance of ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ (another old workhorse, from 1925) and ‘Tea for Two’ stole the show. This is the clip you should watch, the two songs in a high quality version, one after the other. ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ takes no back seat; but listen especially to ‘Tea for Two’, to her ‘trading fours with her long-time drummer, friend and fellow-junkie John Poole in the middle of the song. But where the magic of jazz really happens is in the last minute, ‘the sound of surprise’. “We’d just begun doing it as a fast tune,” she writes, “And it was as fresh to us as to the audience.”

Her sleeveless 1950s version of a LBD (little black dress), the over-the-top cartwheel hat, the white gloves—she’s the epitome of class. And she was “high as a kite” (in her words) when she went on stage. She says that she really enjoyed doing an afternoon show because for a change she could see the audience, including fellow songstress Chris Conner, and watching her enjoying the show gave her a big kick. But as striking as her apparel is, it’s Anita O’Day’s great singing that makes the appearance so memorable.

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052: The Lovin’ Spoonful, ‘Girl, Beautiful Girl’

Posted by jeff on May 28, 2015 in Rock, Song Of the week

Girl, Beautiful Girl, The Lovin’ Spoonful

One weekend night in 1969 I was working the door at the Ludlow Garage, a rock emporium in Cincinnati, when a party of four hotshots approached. The cheesiest of them asked from behind his sunglasses, “This where Mountain is playing?”

And I answered, “Yeah”. That was me, always ready with a rapier comeback.

And he said, “We would like to bestow upon you the honor of inviting us in.”

“For free?”

“Of course.”

“Why would I want to do that?”

“Because this,” indicating one member of the group, “is Mr. ***.”

Mr. *** was a young and upcoming director of films from the state of California on the west coast of the United States. I don’t know who the hotshot was trying to impress by dropping that name, because it wouldn’t be recognized by anyone in Cincinnati other than a bored, film-obsessed 21-year old follower of young and obscure directors. Coincidentally, the guy working the door at that moment was a bored, film-obsessed 21-year old follower of young and obscure directors.

So I said over hotshit’s shoulder, directly to Mr. ***, “Mr ***, it would be our pleasure to host you this evening.” (I’m not quite sure from whence I drew the authority to make that decision, but I did.)

Just how obscure was Mr ***? Well, he at that time had two Hollywood films released. The first began as his MA thesis at UCLA film school, but became an $800,000-budget Hollywood release. It was a coming-of-age comic-drama starring a bunch of B- and C-list actors – Peter Kastner (who?) as Bernard, The Innocent; Karen Black (Nicholson’s waitress girlfriend in Five Easy Pieces) as The Good Girl; Elizabeth Hartman as The Bad Girl;  Tony Bill as The Friend; and Method-school bluebloods Rip Torn (born Elmore Rual Torn, Jr., nicknamed “Rip” by his father) as The Father, and Geraldine Page (premier interpretress of Tennessee Williams’ heroines) as The Mother. Bernard’s film parents were married in real life as well (well, ‘real’ in Hollywoodian terms.) Their country estate was named Torn Page.

The story takes place at the boy’s place of employ, the labyrinth stacks of the NYC Public Library, which Bernard traverses on roller skates, shelving books and moaning about his lack of a sex life. His friend incites him to rebellion, drugs, and sex, the latter focused on Barbara Darling (Hartman).

But you have to remember that we’re talking 1966 here, and movies like that weren’t made. Establishment ‘youth’ films were still Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello Beach Blanket Bingos. That’s why Richard Lester’s Beatles Hard Day’s Night and his The Knack (and How to Get It) were so mind-blowing for us. Later, in 1967, the The Graduate used the Mrs Robinson soundtrack precisely and evocatively, but it was background music.

That’s why Mr ***’s You’re a Big Boy Now made such an impression on me, and on the other 2000 people who had seen it. It had the unique quality of taking the rock music soundtrack seriously. Written and performed by The Lovin’ Spoonful, the music actually served as a cinematic tool, organically integrated in the goings-on on screen (even more than in Hard Day’s Night.)

Apparently I wasn’t the only one impressed with the use of The Spoonful’s music in the film. The next year, Woody Allen hired them to provide the music to his film What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, in which he took a grade-Z Japanese spy movie and added his own soundtrack, which became the story of agent Phil Moskowitz’s deadly mission to secure the recipe for the world’s greatest egg salad.

You have to remember, this was 1966. The only American rock bands of significance were The Byrds from California, and The Lovin’ Spoonful from New York. By the time of You’re a Big Boy, The Spoonful already had under their collective belts “Do You Believe in Magic?,” “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice,” “Daydream,” “Summer in the City,” and “Nashville Cats“. Not bad, huh? And lots of their lesser-known songs are just as good.

But I’m not going to deal thoroughly with The Lovin’ Spoonful here, because I’m such a giant John Sebastian fan. He’ll get his own SoTW. Many of them, I hope, because so many of his songs are deeply engraved in my heart and soul and memory. Here we’ll just mention that the song has some pretty darn funky brass, and even strings, juxtaposed with the raucous rockous almost-song, with Sebastian’s knockout lyrics barely noticeable. (Check them out, down at the bottom here.) Sebastian’s lyrics here, as always, are witty, urbane, sly, goofy, charming, and full of surprising delights. The movie score also included the great ‘Darling, Be Home Soon’ (the video shows why Zal already had one foot outside the band) and the title song, later memorably rerecorded by Sebastian solo.

Anyway, after that movie Mr *** had gotten a hack job directing a real-budget Hollywood musical, ‘Finian’s Rainbow’, a rather embarrassing blurp in his filmography. And at the time he came to see Leslie West at The Garage, he had probably finished making his new film which had yet to be released, a way-before-its time road movie about a pregnant, angst-ridden housewife who just gets up and walks out, drives and drives, picks up along the way a hitchhiking former pro football player with mushed brains. They travel together, two lost souls, Shirley Knight and the young and unknown James Caan. But as I said, The Rain People had yet to show in Cincinnati, and my respect and admiration for Mr *** was based solely on what I had seen in You’re a Big Boy Now.

Meanwhile, back at the Garage, during a break, I went up to tell him that.

“Mr. ***,” I said, “I’m an admirer of yours.”

“Thank you,” he said. An auspicious beginning.

“I think that You’re a Big Boy Now is the first movie ever to really use rock music seriously.” He looked at me.

“Like in the first scene [and thank you so much to YouTube for enabling us to revisit it]. The gut-wrenchingly slow zoom in from the far side of the main reading room of the NY Public Library, so quiet you’re not sure the movie has really started until you hear a background cough, no movement, no noise, no activity other than the turning of pages. As still as a tomb. And then the camera ‘zooms’ (crawls, actually) into those big, staid double oak doors. Painfully slowly. And then, Boom! Zal’s slashing, grating guitar chords, as jarring as the opening chord of George’s in that Lester film, as the doors are thrown back, and Barbara Darling comes strutting in, all the movement and brashness and color and music in the world. I think that’s a really fine scene. Never seen anything like it. That’s the way to make a movie that rocks.”

And he looked at me, and said, “You from around here?”

And I said, “Yes.”

And he said, “Well, if you’re ever in California, come look me up.”

Three years later, Francis Ford Coppolla made The Godfather. And the year after that he produced George Lucas’s American Graffiti, which redefined the use of rock music in films.

But even then California was La-La Land for me. When Mr Coppolla was making those movies, I was already settled in Israel, with a wife, kid, mortgage and war on my head.

Well, you never can tell
But you’re looking so well
That I gotta stop and say “How do you do?”

I know it’s a long shot
But judging what she’s got
I’m hoping that my judgment is true

Girl, beautiful girl, can I look at your insides?
Girl, wrapped up in fur, I’m just mad for your outsides!

Mmm, that’s what my inside says
If only I could walk up and tell her
But it seems so far from me to her
And the ground is so unfamiliar

Well I wish that I knew cause I’d be in a stew
If my little speech sounded like a phony line
I know that it’s doubtful cause she’s heard a mouthful
Of ‘come on up and see me sometime’.

Girl, beautiful girl, can I look at your insides?
Girl, wrapped up in fur, I’m just mad for your outsides!

If you enjoyed this posting, you may also like:

098: John Sebastian, ‘Younger Generation’


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049: Chrysalis (J. Spider Barbour), ‘Summer in Your Savage Eyes’

Posted by jeff on May 17, 2015 in Personal, Rock, Song Of the week

Forewarning: This week’s SoTW is long, even by my shaggy dog standards. What can you do? It’s a long story, spanning 45 years. It was sparked by the recent death of an obscure rock artist with a significant cult following, but quickly moves back to the strange tale of a much more obscure artist, his music, J. Spider Barbour and his band Chrysalis. The story as I tell it is full of detours, tangents, and irrelevencies, so don’t expect a “well-made” dramatic storyline here. Only a bizarre chain of events in which real life and fantasy intertwine in their ironic and inextricable way.

SoTW: Chrysalis, Summer in Your Savage Eyes

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the sad and curious career of Alex Chilton and his band Big Star. At the age of 16 in 1966, Alex fronted The Boxtops’ “The Letter” (‘Gimme a ticket for an ai-ro-rplane’, at 1:50, the shortest #1 hit ever). He formed Big Star in the early 70s, modeled on the British invasion sound, a band whose talent was exceeded only by their absolute commercial failure. There are enough romantic ingredients in the story to spark the morbid imaginations of a critical mass of rock obsessives large enough form around Big Star a cult following which justified the issuing in 2009 a comprehensive 4-CD box was released containing every scrap of music they ever recorded. And then last month Chilton died. So there’s a lot of talk about them, naturally.

Well, I confess, I’d never heard of Big Star, and only marginally of Chilton. But there’s another band whose leader I’d like to talk about this week–a band much more obscure and I think much more talented than Big Star. Much more talented than just about anyone, actually. In fact, Chrysalis is the greatest band no one has ever heard of.

*          *          *

It all started in 1966. I was a very early devotee of Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, in the days when that was a dubious distinction certain to evoke the concern of parents, the disgust of the respectable citizenry of Cincinnati, and the utter disdain of girls who bathed. Somewhere, probably in a microscopic footnote in a Mothers album liner notes, Zappa called Chrysalis “a group that has yet to destroy your mind”. That was enough to send yours truly scrounging through record bins in remote shopping centers till the LP was found.

Chrysalis was formed in 1967, led by J. Spider Barbour, made one marvelous album and broke up. It sold many dozens of copies throughout the Western hemisphere, mostly to the band member’s families and friends (the close ones, anyway), and to me.

1967, the year of Sgt Pepper, John Wesley Harding, and Jeff is listening to Chrysalis’s ‘Definition’, an album filled with wit and passion and clever arrangements and indelible memories and stunningly sharp performances and just about any superlative I can think of. If we had to categorize it, it would be witty, melodic acid rock. I guess the closest thing would be The Zombies ‘Odessey & Oracle’ or Traffic’s ‘Mr Fantasy’. But Chrysalis has their own unique and unforgettable sound and vision. And they sold many dozens of records.

The very obscurity of the band elevated them to some sort of a symbol for me, though of what I’m not really sure. The curve which approaches the line but never intersects with it. The unattained and the unattainable. The Grail. That which is always slip-sliding away. ‘I opened (the door) for my beloved, but my beloved had slipped away; his speaking had taken my breath away–I sought him, but could not find him, I called him but he didn’t answer.’ (Song of Songs, 5:6, my translation).

I somehow convinced David H. and his girlfriend (the goofy rich one from NY) to travel across state to some small college town to see them. He said they were really excellent, and that the Arab drummer, Daoud Shaar really was my carbon copy. I showed the album cover to my father, who really thought it was me.

I wrote music reviews for the university paper back then. I wrote an extensive, imaginary interview with Daoud, and published it. What was I thinking?

Then my life took me very far away from that scene, from all the great music, famous and obscure alike. At one point, I met a young man, OD, who at the time was I believe in the 9th grade. He was a tall, emaciated, brilliant musician )composer, pianist), obnoxious, non-communicative, anti-social. His talent was widely praised, his personality widely scorned. He was doing some sort of project on the Beatles and was sent to me as a reputed expert. And by the by, we discussed a little music. Over the next 10 years, I taught him everything I knew. Not almost, but everything. We went through the entire repertoire, Buddy Holly to Van Dyke Parks. From the Association to the Zombies, from Eli & the 13th to Astral Weeks, from the Sounds of Silence to — well, Chrysalis. And you know what? Chrysalis sparkled. It still sounded that good, in comparison to all the great music of that era, both to my ears and to his.

We hung out some together, OD and I. Our conversations were something along the line of: “I listened to JWHarding and early Stones yesterday.” “Wow, weird day.” He internalized the entire repertoire. He would sit down and play the slow songs from Pet Sounds on the piano with the real harmonies. Off the cuff. And he started playing with a friend, ET, a guitarist. By this time OD was playing as much guitar as piano. And ET also osmosed all the music I grew up on, all the icons and legends as well. On occasion, he would come over and fondle the record sleeves of The Band or the JT Apple album or Randy Newman’s first. And they would play this music, the two of them, sometimes with friends. Including pretty much the entire Chrysalis album. They were very, very good.

After three years in the army, they went to NYC to try to make their fortune. Then they went to some town in Saskatchewan where grizzlies roamed the streets at night, to play in a bar. Then they split. OD came home, ET continued travelling around America on his own, guitar slung over his shoulder.

We’ll turn the microphone over to ET now to continue the narrative, via a letter he wrote to me in 1996 (my translation from Hebrew):

Dear Mesh,

…A few days ago I went to Woodstock. A few days earlier I got the idea of going to see Big Pink, after I read the book Across the Great Divide. The address was written there, so the lightbulb went on over my head. So I went there, and even though it’s gotten pretty establishment and yuppyized, the area is as beautiful as always, especially in the fall.

So, early in the morning I started to walk out to 2188 Stoll Rd. Map, walkman and harmonica in hand, I walked along a dirt road till I finally got there, deep in the Catskills forest (even saw a deer on the way). Excitedly, I knocked on the door of that legendary basement. But no one was home. So I played my harp for a while and took a long walk, and when I came back a bearded guy, about 50, answered. I told him my story, and that I was from Israel. He was very nice, to my great pleasure, but he had to go out. So I caught a ride with him to town (Saugerties) and he told me to come back the next day and ‘I’ll give you the regular tour’. I asked him how many people made the pilgrimage to this Mecca, if there were a lot of fans pestering him. He said, not too bad, one every 2-3 months… I went back anxiously the next morning, and I felt bad disturbing him in the middle of work (he’s a record collector), but he didn’t seem to mind. His company worked out of the basement, and he showed me where the recording equipment had been when The Band made the Basement Tapes with Dylan. Then we went upstairs, where he lived, and showed me the kitchen, the living room, the bedrooms. On a visit to the house, Rick Danko had told him [details about who slept where, girls, parties].

When the visit was over, and he was showing me out, I suddenly remembered the key question which was usually the first thing I asked any record collector–if he’s heard of Chrysalis. I had done so several times before in Canada and the US, and they had all heard the name only because the album had some market value, but none of them had taken the trouble to pay attention to its content. But Leslie said he had not only heard it, but loved it, and was even opening a small record company which was making a record of dog songs with– Spider Barbour. He told me that Spider lived not too far away. Needless to say, I took the address and flew there, walking, a couple of rides, till I saw the house he had described.

There were a lot of old boxes and cartons outside. The porch was old and neglected. The whole house looked like it was going to fall apart. I stopped by the door for a few moments and just stood there, still.

LtR: ET, Spider

When I knocked on the door my hands started shaking. You have to understand that ever since I got to know the record through OD, who had known it for a long time through you, 8 years now, I had developed an overwhelming curiosity, maybe even an obsession about this mysterious band. Ever since, I’ve always dreamt about getting another piece of information about them, just a little something more, somehow to put together the pieces of the puzzle and to get the whole picture. The very little I knew was from you.

A while back, before Zappa died, OD and I thought about contacting him through the internet and asking him if he knew anything. But we never did, and when he died it was too late.  After that, when we got to NY, one of the first things I did was to go to MGM, Chrysalis’ company, and ask them. They said that they deal only with films, and their archives were in LA. I so I reconciled myself to never knowing more about the Chrysalis mystery. Till yesterday.

So I knock on the door of this weird, haunted house. After a few moments the door opens. I hadn’t looked at the album cover for a long time, but I immediately recognized Spider. I was in total shock. I couldn’t start talking. Then when my voice returned, I told him everything and he invited me in. There was a very strong odor, suffocating would be putting it mildly. I realized that this house hadn’t seen any visitors, or light, for a very long time. Spooky, not to say creepy. And Spider himself was wearing a filthy training outfit that looked like it had been stolen off a homeless person. He looked like another aging hippie done in by drugs. I got very sad, and full of pity, seeing this. But then it became clear, that it’s not drugs or anything else, this guy is just like that naturally. Like he was at 24, when the album was released. He’s simply one of the weirdest, most disconnected people I’ve ever met. If you talk to him about anything other than insects or music, he just doesn’t tune in. So the first few minutes were very strange and hesitant, until his wife Anita came out of the shower and showed herself to be a charming, sociable, pleasant and generous hostess. This entire situation was no less strange and surprising for them than me—how many people come from Israel to the home of the Spider and introduced themselves as avid Chrysalis fans [30 years after the release of a flop album]? Even people from the area or even NY who said they were fans over the years were very few.  His wife was so happy I’d come, and began asking me all kinds of questions, showing a lot of curiosity and interest. We sat there, in this mess and darkness, their two big black dogs lying there, and I began to ask all the questions I had ever had, and got more answers than I ever dreamed:

Spider (the J. is for James) was born in Ohio and got his nickname at a very early age. He was always crazy about insects and nature. He met the band members at college in Ithaca, NY. They were quickly signed by MGM and moved to Brooklyn. They appeared in the Northeast (farthest they ever got was Detroit),  but mostly Woodstock and NYC. Spider also mentioned a few bands they warmed up for—the Who, Procol Harum, MC5 and others. It was then they met Zappa and the Mothers and became friends (Spider guests on Lumpy Gravy, and is mentioned on We’re Only In It). He lived for a while in Jimmy Carl Black’s house. Very quickly there were problems with the managers and the band broke up. In 1969 he married Anita, and they’ve been together, in Woodstock, ever since.

What happened to the others? Nancy Nairn is a Marine Biologist, living in Florida. Still beautiful, according to Anita. Ralph Kokov, the keyboardist, is a doctor of Art Therapy and still plays for fun. Dahud Shaar, the drummer, is the only one who ‘made it’ in Show Biz. As you know, he played with Van Morrison and then was the regular drummer on Saturday Night Live. He still makes his living from session drumming. He changed his name to David Shaw, because a lot of Americans had a hard time with the Lebanese name. The tragedies of the band – bassist Paul Album and guitarist Jon Sabin died. I was very sad to hear this. Paul was very young, about 27, when one night coming back from his new group, a drunk truck driver hit him. Jon died from cancer recently. He had been a teacher in Brooklyn. The other four are still in contact here and there. They’ll probably be really shocked when Spider and Anita tell them about their young fan from the Holy Land…

And what about Spider himself? The usual sad story of a very talented artist lacking the tools to succeed in doing what he wants in music. For years he and Anita have lived in poverty, living off pickup jobs. He still forms the occasional local band. But this story has a better continuation. Spider was always an expert on insects and nature, and Anita was an excellent photographer. They now have a column in the local paper and even published a book together. I saw it, and was amazed by her photographs. Spider lectures about insects at all sorts of institutions, including West Point. So even though the house looks like a dump, they’re doing better…

When Chrysalis finished recording their album, they had an argument with the manager, who was a real hothead. He took a pair of scissors and cut the master tape. That’s why Summer in Your Savage Eyes ends so abruptly.

Spider picked up his acoustic guitar and played What Will Become of the Morning the way he originally intended it. It was very different, of course, from the version we know, much slower. The Mediterranean rhythms were the idea of Shaar and Kotkov. Dr. Root is a real person, one of Spider’s high school teachers in Canton, Ohio.

But the best was when I asked Spider if I could play him something on his acoustic. I surprised him with the opening riff of April Grove. He joined in, and while he was lighting the oven we sang it together. Anita sat there, almost in tears from emotion. I had the feeling I was bringing them a little light after a long time…

Then I heard some newer songs Spider wrote. They’re as good as those of Chrysalis. He’s a great songwriter. Same beautiful, magic harmonies, same unique, weird lyrics. It was easy to see the disappointment and bitterness in Anita’s eyes when she told me about all the demos he had made and the attempts to sell them to the companies. They often seemed more like mother and child than husband and wife. They played some of the songs to Garth Hudson, but he didn’t like them. Anita seemed more hurt than Spider. He just sinks into his magical, child’s world of insects and music.

He recorded an EP with a band called Imago (a type of insect). Four songs, 1980. They gave me a copy as a present.  They invited me for lunch, and Anita gave me a painting of hers of two apples.

We talked a lot about music, and it turns out that you (Mesh), he and I have very much the same tastes. He was amazed that a kid like me had that kind of knowledge. He and his wife are friends of Sebastian and his wife. The whole time I was there I kept mentioning you, and your connection to this whole thing. If you want, you can write to him (mention the connection with me):

Barbour J. Spider and Anita
3000 Fishcreek Rd
Saugerties NY 12477

*          *          *

I, of course, never wrote Spider. I would have no idea what to say to him. But I sure do like ET’s tale. And I suppose I can handle the safer, saner ground of a little stroll down my very personal, private Musical Memory Lane.

Like almost all 1967 LPs, ‘Definition’ contained 12 songs, a bizarre and charming hodgepodge of insects, love, and the weird old man next door:

Show me one song that expresses the aesthetic of the late 1960s better than this one:

04. April Grove

Their signature pieces, first songs on Side A and Side B, baroque piano line, jagged joyous rhythms.

01. What Will Become of the Morning

07. Baby, Let Me Show You Where I Live

Dad and his day, the weird neighbor, the myths of living in the past.

05. Father’s Getting Old

06. 30 Poplar

08. Fitzpatrick Swanson

10. Piece of Sun

12. Dr Root’s Garden

Love and life.

02. Lacewing

03. Cynthia Gerome – What a beautiful, aching melody. Cynthia Gerome, it works just for a while, dragging people home by the leash of your sweet smile. Ay.

09. Lake Hope

Lake Hope was calling me, October witnesses were there

So I took her with me, I knew just what would occur there.

That’s why I had to take her there.

So I called on our Michael, it was so far, and he was willing to drive us.

Gathered up her paintbrushes ran to the car. But for the squirrels it was quiet.

Lake Hope reality, seems so ethereal floating.

And the finality of her embrace left me groping–satisfied yes, but still groping…

For the secret of metaphysical joy there in her body’s caresses.

Love is but to play with a girl like a toy, yes but nobody confesses.

Lake Hope was calling me, I knew just what would occur there.

So I took her with me, only could do it with her there.

That’s why I couldn’t take you there.

11. Summer in Your Savage Eyes

Our Song of The Week, and what a pleasure it is to share it with you. Anything I could say would just detract from its unique charm and beauty. If you’ve stuck with me all the way to here, please do me one small favor when you listen to it, tip your hat to Spider, wherever he may be.

Windy afternoon stirs dust around us with a rusty spoon

Chasing after leaves and playing catch with raindrops.

Glancing about me your eyes begin to speak of what should be.

Telling me I’m here and suddenly the pain stops.

Seems like every time I ran away from home my new life makes me feel like being born

And then the way you follow me around tells me that I’ve found the rainbow.

Love embraced diverse, uncultivated children of the earth

And sunlight seems to dance across the skies, like summer in your savage eyes.

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