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Band from Dylanland: Big Pink in Quake City

“Big Pink in Quake City: Respite for the Restless”

SAN FRANCISCO — Darling Dolly Dane, a rachitic teenie waif from the wilds of Petaluma (“Egg Basket of the West”), was rattling off her semi-pro panhandler’s hype at the intersection of Post and Steiner, while up the block at Winterland, the reclusive band from Big Pink was making ready to strike up some sweet country funk, and rock mojo-domo Bill Graham, after his own emotionally hemophiliac fashion, was sidling up to the mound to strike o-u-t OUT.

“Don’t be a tacky cunt, hon,” Darling Dolly coaxed a sailor in the stream of ticket-holders pressing toward the entrance. “Do me some good with your spare change.”

Dear, darling Darlin Doll she wasn’t alone — the tribal rock hounds and stone guerrilla hippies of the Bay Area had turned out in force for the occasion. Flapping along the sidewalks, preening and shrilling, they soared into the cavernous recesses of the old ice-skating rink-turned-rock ballroom like flocks of bright, demented birds.

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The mood of expectancy ran high; “This will be a stoning thing,” a mustachioed kid from Berkeley promised his chick in sepulchral tones.

Promises, promises. From the outset, The Event that had been broadsided for weeks in advance as sure to hang heavy, heavy over our collective long-haired heads turned out to be — with a brief respite to be noted — merely onerous.

The spooky vibes began in the lobby. Poker-faced security guards — a lot of them, all looking like Tac Squad reservists — swarmed through the foyer and along the hall’s aisles, barking at people to move along, seemingly at whim. After being shooed away a couple of times, I managed to buy a coke at the refreshment stand and started working my way through the crush toward the stage, where the house sound system reared up out of the darkness like a massive and sinister radar installation. The Ace of Cups, a local all-femme group who occasionally generate an ambience of pure physical fun because they’re such fetching chicks to look at, played listlessly. The acoustical reference in the room was muddier than Vic and Sade on an Atwater-Kent table model.

I ran into one of the Family Dog people, an acquaintance from Texas, and we watched silently as the Sons of Champlin, another local group, set up onstage. They would play an overlong and uncharacteristically lackwit set. After the first couple of numbers, the crowd stirred restlessly; the smell of burning weed was stronger than a ten-minute egg.

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A kid in a smudgy, buttonless tunic, his face pocked with scabies pimples, wandered through the crowd, obviously stoned. He kept running his fingers through the flame of a lighted candle and mumbling what must have started out as a chant. A half-hour later, when I caught sight of him a second time, his hands were black and literally smoking.

My friend groaned; “Jesus, that dude must’ve been shooting up the Chronicle Sporting Green for days. He’s gonna wake up in the morning — some morning — and feel everything but good.”

After the Sons had bowed off to polite but disinterested applause, there was a lengthy delay of a type that telegraphed to the audience: Something Has Gone Stone Wrong. Then Bill Graham popped up at the mike, earnest, thin-skinned, a-stammer, attempting to apologize for the apology he was about to tender —

“Fuck you!” someone yelled distinctly from the balcony.

Graham winced as if he’d been slapped, but, gathering his aplomb about him with the equanimity of a wino wrapping up for the night in a bundle of Moral Rearmament pamphlets, he bore grimly on to relate that Robbie Robertson, the band’s lead guitarist, had been ill with the flu for two days, and was having a little trouble getting together, but if the audience would only be patient, the whole band’d be there, Graham guaranteed it —

“A 15 minute delay at the latest,” he promised, and scuttled off the stage into the shadows.

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Promises, promises. We waited — 30 minutes, an hour, ultimately an hour and a half. A few in the crowd waited merely for the chance to red-ass Graham when he worked up the nerve to reappear; others were determined to dig the young musical gunfighters from Woodstock at any cost, even if they had to invade Robertson’s hotel room and give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Finally, straggling onstage one by one, the members of the band assembled, Robertson assisted to his place by a man named Ralph Gleason later identified as the guitarists’s personal hypnotist. At last they were on.

The respite mentioned earlier lasted 35 minutes. The band from Dylan Country played only seven songs, only two of these new, but it’s not inconceivable to me that during that brief session, a few hearts and heads and lives might have been turned around for the better. The band’s sound and stance were flawless. From the strength of their personal decency and dedication, the musicians summoned up an oceanic passion, a commitment to the true experience of their materials that short-circuited the hair on the back of one’s neck. For a little better than a half-hour, the band didn’t redeem the morbid vibes that had been going down all evening, but simply transcended them.

Then, in a wink, the players were gone, and the howl for an encore went up. “Come back to the raft a’gin, Huck honey!” a male voice boomed from the floor. A volley of boos greeted Graham as he worked his way back to the mike. He stood visibly shaken in the rain of catcalls and curses until the yelling and stomping gradually subsided.

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“Well,” he drawled pouty, “there must be a lot of tourists here tonight, because San Francisco people just don’t act that way —”

The crowd groaned in unison, a long-drawn-out wail of derision and contempt that must have chilled Graham’s deep soul, for he stepped back from the mike, his mouth working silently. “TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, GRAHAM!” somebody cried from the press of bodies at the edge of the bandstand.

In small eddies and surges, the audience began to disperse. “The band got it together,” I heard a college girl saying philosophically, “but Bill Graham kind of bombed, didn’t he.” Outside Darling Dolly Dane collared my friend and me at the corner. “Don’t be a tacky cunt,” she began, but he put a quarter in her palm and gently closed her palm and gently closed her bony little fingers around it in a ball. “Take a load off, Fanny,” he told her gravely, and we strolled on, somewhat armed against the night’s chill.  ■

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Sinatra at 80: Practice Makes Posterity

In recent years, more people have asked me about my trombone solo on Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” than just about anything else I did in music, which is gratifying because for many years no one knew who played it. One writer even credited it to Juan Tizol. The performance is, in a way, derived from a record that Bill Russo wrote for Stan Kenton, “23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West,” a refer­ence to the longitudinal location of Havana, Cuba, that had a montuno section for trombone. Actually, that record was in turn indebted to Dizzy Gillespie’s “Cubana Be/Cubana Bop,” which Gillespie wrote with George Russell. That was the first instance of a mon­tuno in big band jazz. But then Russo wrote his piece — not a copy, but a piece with that flavor, done very well, with a very good Frank Rosolino trombone solo. It’s one of Stan’s best records really.

Now in retrospect, I don’t think the approach to the song was Nelson Riddle’s idea. We’re talking 40 years after the fact, but it occurred to me much much later that “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” a Frank Sinatra recording that went into a Latin type of a thing in the middle, with the trombones — first bass trombone, then another trombone — was in this tradition that began with Dizzy and was adapted in a fresh way for Kenton. And it was one of Sinatra’s first really important Capitol dates — there were other dates earlier, but this one took him to a whole differ­ent level. And, remember, it’s Capitol Records and Kenton was one of its biggest stars. So it occurred to me all these years later that the A&R people at Capitol were better acquainted with Kenton and his recent suc­cesses than they were with Frank Sinatra, who had returned from a floundering ca­reer only a few years before. And in plot­ting that particular number somebody, not Frank, suggested this approach. He prob­ably wasn’t too crazy about the idea, be­cause Nelson wrote it at the last minute and it wasn’t released as a single, only as part of the album, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, which was drawn from about three record dates.

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I’d been on dates with Sinatra before. His first arranger at Capitol was supposed to be Billy May, but Billy had a band that went out on the road, and the dates were set and they couldn’t get Billy back, or he wasn’t available, or couldn’t be found — I don’t recall which. In order to do the dates, they brought in Nelson Riddle and that was Nelson’s first exposure to Sinatra, on­ly he didn’t get label credit — Billy May did on the singles “I’ve Got the World on a String” and “South of the Border.” Nobody at the time knew that Nelson had writ­ten them, because although he led the band, word got around that these were Billy’s charts and Nelson was sworn to secrecy. Later they were obliged to give him his chance, and by the time we did Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, everyone could see Sinatra and Riddle were a great team.

So for the “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” session, I walked in early. I always got to a record date well ahead to see what was coming so that I could get nice and nervous. Some peo­ple would say you’re out of your mind, but I just felt it was wiser. I’d relax a little more as time passed, but then I’d find myself at a session, turn page and see something very hard and, without any practice, it’s time to start playing it. The public doesn’t realize that the band gets there and within minutes will be recording the music for posterity. That’s the way it always happens. The on­ly time it didn’t happen that way was when you had bands on the road, Ellington, Glenn Miller, the swing bands; then the music was known because they had months on the job, at dances, to try things. But the way it’s done to this day is the studio play­ers walk in to do a movie and they will do that score before lunchtime. They have to be that good. Few people realize what that takes — they think they had a week to re­hearse and take it home.

Anyway, I arrive early and I see that the whole song is in G-flat, six flats, which wouldn’t bother the singer, but for an instru­mentalist it isn’t easy to come up with something graceful where there’s nothing written, just chord symbols and fills of some­thing in G-flat. So I’m looking at these symbols — ­just little chicken tracks with the name of the chord, G-flat. And I didn’t even realize until much much later that that part, that section was the bridge of the song, the part that goes, “I’d sacrifice any­thing, come what may, for the sake of having you near.” If I had even begun to know that; I would have had something planned, something related to the melody, who knows what. But I just didn’t know. And it does stay on one chord for quite a while anyway-the melody con­tinues in the same change. So we start and I kind of plotted out something that fit. I figured I was going to play it.

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Well, until recently I didn’t know how many takes we made. I had lost track of the number, there were that many. But a young­ster called me a couple of weeks ago, a young man who is writing a discography on Sinatra and he called me for anecdotes. I told him I just remembered playing take af­ter take, and that I left the best stuff I ever played in the first half a dozen takes, when I was still fresh — I’m telling you, the fiddle players were applauding me at that point. And this youngster reminded me there were 22 takes! I had really kind of written it off, because pretty soon it wasn’t a matter of re­ally making history, but of getting through it, you’re so tired, Twenty-two. I think it was about the third number in the session, and I was also given all the lead parts to play. The other players in the trombone section really couldn’t have anyway, cause it was George Roberts on bass trombone; and Juan Tirol, which was a thrill for me because I’m an Ellington nut and there’s Juan Tirol sitting next to me, but Juan was not really a lead trombone player; and Jimmy Priddy, who was also a copyist for Nelson Riddle and had played lead with Glenn Miller. But these charts were not his bag, so he wasn’t going to play it; he would have walked out of the studio. It was up to me. And I’m a hero in those days, right? — still fresh from Kenton, still had road chops. Well, that passed quickly enough. Five years later, I didn’t have those chops — there is no way you can be a studio player and keep that kind of lip or endurance. It went and it went fast. Rarely did I get calls to play that way. The typical work I was doing was cues for television shows, where a very moderate level of excellence is re­quired, once in a blue moon something hard. And then I began to wor­ry about what I’d do if I had to play something re­ally challenging after 10 years of studio work.

That fear got to a lot of players, especially trumpet players, who then began to drink or worse. It’s the fear of being caught doing some­: thing you really can’t do anymore. On the road every night, you’re play­ing hard — it’s second na­ture. Studio work, sometimes you work five days and nights in a row and then nothing happens for five days or more. Of course, you made a lot of money. I was here at a very busy time. And it was good for young jazz players because Shorty Rogers helped to break the doors down. Shorty got a couple of pictures out of the clear blue sky. But before that nobody who played jazz was considered able to walk in and do a studio call. They were convinced you couldn’t read, or you wouldn’t show up, or you’d fall down drunk. In that sense, we were all trailblazers. So somehow I got through that solo, and now 40 years later people still want to talk about it. Incredible! ❖

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Sinatra at 80: Frank Swings

Add to the ever growing number of 12-step programs Accompa­nists Anonymous. AA, a semi­-fictional organization founded by some of New York’s finest jazz musicians, is dedi­cated to helping instrumentalists avoid the frustrations of accompanying singers. Many jazz musicians don’t like singers, and some will go to great lengths to avoid play­ing for them. Not without rea­son. Most singers haven’t taken the time to develop the skills required to communicate musical ideas, especially within the frame­ work of jazz. Frank Sinatra is a rare excep­tion. If you asked him, he probably wouldn’t refer to himself as a jazz musician, yet many jazz musicians credit him with having made tremendous contributions to this art form. His artistry encompasses much of what jazz musicians strive for.

Sinatra’s mastery lies in his ability to communicate the true meaning of a song in its complete form, the music and lyrics simultaneously, without sacrificing the im­portance of one for the other. His vocal quality, intonation, diction, phrasing, and sense of swing are integrated and balanced in a way that has brought us unequaled per­formances of American popular songs.

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Some of Sinatra’s most memorable recorded performances were made in the late 1950s and 1960s, a period during which he released recordings first for Capi­tol Records and later his own label, Reprise Records. By this time in his career he had cultivated and refined the skills that created the sound and style that defined him from the beginning.

Frank’s earliest recordings for Victor and Columbia are certainly pleasant. He always sang in tune and with a beautiful sound. But in those early years, Sinatra was in many ways underde­veloped. He definite­ly lacked the swing feel that would later become one of his trademarks. And in the early 1940s recordings with Tommy Dorsey, discerning listeners will notice how long he sus­tained notes and how much vibrato he used. Frequently, singers become overly fo­cused on the sound of their own voices. They seem to be listening to themselves singing instead of focusing on delivery of the music (cf., just about any Broadway cast album or cabaret record). As a result, they tend to make themselves more important than the song. Frank wasn’t en­tirely guilty of this. But occasionally, on his early records, one detects an unmistakable self-consciousness in the way he projects his voice. He was much more of a “crooner” in those days, at times even corny. But the feeling generated by the Dorsey rhythm section and the style of those orchestrations required him to ap­proach the vocal line as he did. And so even in these early record­ings we hear evidence of one of Sinatra’s most important attribut­es: He always maintains a strong musical relationship with his ac­companiment.

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The time spent with the Tommy Dorsey band allowed Sinatra to obtain and refine much of the technical and musical material that would later be part of his style and repertoire. (His later vocal per­formances are saturated with big band swing rhythms and jazz articulation and phrasing.) That kind of information can on­ly be acquired by observing instrumental­ists. Saxophonist Jerry Dodgion, who played with Sinatra in 1959 and 1960 dur­ing his tour with Red Norvo, recalls: ”Frank used to always tell us that he learned a lot while he was on the Dorsey band. Es­pecially about breathing. In those days the singers always sat up on the stage with the band during the instrumental numbers. Frank said he used to sit there and watch the way Dorsey’s back would fill up with air between phrases.”

In 1957 Sinatra released A Swingin’ Affair for Capitol, and from that point on listeners become aware of a change. The voice was deeper, richer, more resonant. He had become direct, us­ing less vibrato, not “singing” as much. By the mid 1960s, a new Frank Sinatra had completely emerged, his groove deeper than ever!

That groove is a big part of what distinguishes Sinatra from every­one else. At some point between the late ’50s and early ’60s, he realized that for vocalists the key to swinging lies more in where you stop the note than in where you start it. This bit of informa­tion is something many other singers simply haven’t learned. One way Sinatra discontin­ues the sound is through his use of dic­tion, especially conso­nant sounds. When a word ends with a con­sonant, the note that accompanies it can eas­ily be stopped. A sound that has a clear­ly defined ending has rhythmic value and therefore can be in­corporated into the groove of a song. In Sinatra’s case, this is usually a swing feel.

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Critics can object all they want to Frank replacing a the with a that in the lyric of a song. But those mannerisms can’t always be dismissed as tough guy stuff. Frank knows that a word with a defined stop, like that, swings more than a word that hangs in the air, like the. It func­tions as part of the rhythm, part of the swing groove. Many singers don’t swing because they sustain notes so long that they sabotage the rhythmic relationship between the vocal line and the music’s pulse. They don’t partake in the primary ingredient in music: rhythm.

Listen to “A Foggy Day,” from the 1961 Reprise album Ring-A-­Ding-Ding. The accompaniment in the first chorus is played in a broken­-two feeling by the rhythm section. Sinatra sings fluidly with a legato approach, and his voice is cush­ioned by the strings and saxo­phones, playing sustained notes. In the second chorus, the groove changes to a four feeling, as the strings are replaced with brass and long notes are sub­stituted with shorter ones. Accordingly, Frank shortens his notes and adjusts his rhythmic placement, fully participating in the newly established swinging groove. The rhythms he chooses are generally tra­ditional big band swing figures, and they are always calculatedly and confidently po­sitioned within the structure of the accompaniment.

The swing of Frank Sinatra is beauti­fully captured on the Reprise recordings where he’s featured with Count Basie’s band. Frank sings rhythmic figures in very much the same way that the band plays them. They have the same time-feel and produce a powerful sensation of swing. For that reason the Sinatra-Basie sessions, es­pecially It Might as Well Be Swing and Sinatra at the Sands, are among the fa­vorite recordings of jazz musicians. Saxo­phonist Bob Berg, known for his work with Chick Corea and Miles Davis as well as his own bands, is an avid fan: “To me, Frank Sinatra is the perfect singer, the Rolls­-Royce of singers. And you know, it’s really amazing how many jazz musicians love Sinatra. Miles really liked Frank. I remem­ber him telling me to check out the way Frank phrases.”

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Without question, phrasing is one of the most challenging aspects of vocal per­formance. We all phrase when we speak — ­spoken language has starting and stopping points, long and short sounds, antecedents and consequences, inflection, cadences, and natural places to breathe. These compo­nents also exist in music. Songs are con­structed by combining musical language (a series of organized sounds) with spoken language (a series of organized words). The key to Sinatra’s masterful phrasing is that he has a command of both languages and can speak them simultaneously. (No easy task, and one that can get especially com­plicated when the words and music were not written at the same time or suggest contrary intentions.) The truth is very few people can really do it. But Sinatra does it effortlessly, and with tremendous regard for the intentions of the composer and lyricist.

Sinatra’s bilingual abilities are exquis­itely demonstrated on the 1963 Reprise re­lease, The Concert Sinatra, a collection of eight beautifully performed compositions flawlessly orchestrated by Nelson Riddle. These recordings exemplify Sinatra’s mas­tery of the delicate balance between words and music, and demonstrate how, perhaps more than any other singer, he understands the ways they connect. The bulk of his recorded work is a catalogue of unsur­passed renditions of songs. His innate tal­ent and his cultivated skills are worthy of the highest admiration. His performances have educated generations of musicians, es­pecially jazz musicians. At a Carnegie Hall concert in the early 1980s, Micky Weisman, who was part of Sinatra’s management team, ran into Miles Davis in the cafe, and they had a conversation that confirmed Bob Berg’s recollection. “He was there with Cicely Tyson. We spoke for a while and I remember he told me, in that raspy voice of his, that he got a lot of his phrasing from listening to Frank’s records. He said he learned a lot from Sinatra.”

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For most musicians, nothing more need be said. In music, as in any art form, the exchange of ideas is fundamental. And though it hasn’t always been acknowledged or understood, Sinatra has made a sub­stantial contribution to the education of countless musicians. If Miles could learn from him, we all can. ❖

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Sinatra at 80: The Greatest Singer of Them All

The editor, in inviting me to contribute to this issue wrote, “One subject you might be able to shed light on is the perceived split between Sinatra the incomparable romantic singer and Sinatra the intemperate monster and his dubious associates?”

Younger people, who know little more about Sinatra the man than can be gained from the depictions of him by comedian Phil Hartman on Saturday Night Live, would take him to be nothing but a rude, charmless bully. The fact is, Frank has al­ways had enormous charm. When he is ei­ther in a good mood or his right mind, de­pending on one’s perception, he is an endearingly likable fellow. He is, however, much more complex than Tony Bennett, who has always had the persona of a genial, smiling, carefree Italian peasant, rather like one of those happy monks in a rural monastery. Behaviorally, Sinatra is from a different planet altogether.

Although I have personally never done an anti-Sinatra joke, they have long been common in the comedy trade. One night, when Milton Berle was presiding over a star-studded dais, he introduced Sinatra and then said, “Frank, make yourself at home: Hit somebody.”

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For years Shecky Green has done the following routine: “You can say what you want about Sinatra, but the man once saved my life. That’s right, he did. I was stand­ing out in front of Caesar’s Palace one night and three big tough guys began to kick the hell out of me. They were giving me a terri­ble beating, but finally Frank came up and said, ‘Okay, that’s enough.'”

Another line that made the rounds was, “I hear that the pope has been thinking of making Frank Sinatra a cardinal. Can you believe that? Actu­ally, it wouldn’t be a bad idea, ’cause then we’d only have to kiss his ring.”

But comedy is about tragedy and the reality behind all such jokes is truly sad. The deepest part of the tragedy, of course, is that Frank must have known, after all his fits of fury, that he had behaved abom­inably, and yet he was apparently unequal to the task of breaking out of such a destructive behavior pattern. Let the man who has nev­er had such a problem cast the first stone.

But if you do, be sure it doesn’t fall where Frank can pick it up.

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A fair-minded approach to the prob­lem posed by the editor will, I suspect, please neither Mr. Sinatra’s admirers nor his detractors, for the former will resent any negative criticism of him whatever, and the latter will be so critical of him on moral grounds that their evaluation of his profes­sional gift is likely to be seriously distorted.

The ancient observation about heroes and gods that are discovered to have feet of clay is, of course, relevant here. The fact is that all gods and all their human creatures have feet of clay. Indeed, many of us seem to consist almost entirely of clay. But whether we admire or loathe anything — a man, a political philosophy, a religion, a football team — we insist, consciously or not, on bringing our egos into the valua­tive process, as if our personal reputations stood or fell on the basis of the accuracy of our assessments, so poorly do we reason. We want life to be simple, when it is in fact hopelessly complex. We want our heroes to be totally heroic, even though that has nev­er happened. On the other side of the coin, we want the objects of our scorn to be per­ceived as totally evil, and that, too, not on­ly has never happened but is not even the­oretically possible.

It is a wonder we have any heroes or heroines left at all, given the modern news media’s tendency to emphasize scandal and gossip. So long as the neg­ative portrayals of public figures are sub­stantially accurate, a philosophical ra­tionale can be developed for the exposé mode of journalism, but it is hard to say where the public stands on this issue. On the one hand Americans, to judge by their newsstand purchases and television-viewing habits, have an appetite for ugliness so con­suming that it has much in common with the classical chemical addictions. On the oth­er hand, that same public sometimes carries its adulation of public figures to extremes that border on the idiotic. As regards Elvis Presley, for example, I was one of the first to recognize his talent and importantly further his career, but to stand in the hot sun for four hours waiting to get in to visit his for­mer living quarters, or to purchase some tasteless knickknack dignified by the word memorabilia — is comment really necessary?

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So — as regards Sinatra, are all the sto­ries about his lifelong association with the most notorious Mafia murderers and social savages, the stories about semi-psychotic rages, true? The answer to all such painful questions is, to some degree, yes.

But should that lead us to deny Frank’s brilliance in a recording studio? Absolute­ly not. Does the fact that Mozart, as a hu­man being, would appear to have been something of a jerk entitle us to denigrate his music? Benny Goodman was cold and inconsiderate but is still the clarinet champ. Frank Sinatra in his prime was, to put the matter quite simply, the best popular singer of them all. His gift was just that, of course. The great practitioners, of any profession­al discipline, do not become so as a result of determination, long hours of practice, or any other such admirable application of conscious energy. The truth is much sim­pler but at the same time more perplexing. The great musicians, athletes, philosophers, scientists, scholars are great primarily be­cause of a genetic predisposition. Physicist­-mathematician Richard Feynman was not so brilliant because he practiced to be. He just was. Michael Jordan did not become the greatest basketball player of all time simply because as a youth he spent an extra few minutes on the practice courts after the other boys had gone home. He was supe­rior by nature. As for Sinatra, he may have imagined that his breath-control was a trick he learned from watching his early em­ployer, trombonist Tommy Dorsey, and in­deed the acquired knack had some practi­cal value for him. But does anyone seriously believe that if Mr. Dorsey had communi­cated the same information to 1000 singers, the other 999 would have achieved Sinatra’s eminence?

In the end, is it possible to fit the two large pieces of the Sinatra puzzle smoothly together? I think not. It’s easy enough to say that the moral idiots who actually ad­mire him for his vengefulness — the same types who spray ”Free Gotti” graffiti at New York construction sites — ought to be ashamed of themselves. The fact is that they never have been and never will be. But to let Frank’s weaknesses as a man af­fect our judgment of him as a singer is both dumb and unfair. Forget all that cliche disc-jockey dumbo-talk about the Chairman-­of-the-Board and Ol’ Blue Eyes. The man was still the greatest singer of them all.

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We might be tempted to think that the mark of a great artist is discernible in terms of his influence on other performers. But that is only a reliable general­ity, not a law. I happen to think that Erroll Garner was the great­est popular pianist of our century, and yet not a single other jazz pi­anist has seriously followed in his footsteps. Many of us occasional­ly show flashes of his two separate styles — the rhythmic or the ro­mantic — but we always seem to be doing an “impression” of him, just like, as actors, we might imper­sonate Jimmy Cagney, Richard Nixon, or Donald Duck. It is a fascinating though digressive question as to why none of us piano play­ers, even those with good-enough chops, ever dreamed of following Erroll out into that mysteriously beautiful part of the cre­ative universe he inhabited, whereas hun­dreds of jazz players have been influenced by Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Bud Pow­ell, Bill Evans, and other keyboard masters.

As for Sinatra, he was strongly influen­tial. To this day, in assorted lounges across the continent, one can hear young singers — and sometimes old ones — who are performing either loosely or directly in the Sinatra style. This is not unprecedented, of course. An earlier generation of baritone vocalists consciously imitated Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo. In fact, one of them, Perry Como, became enormously popular by doing so. Once, when asked to explain his singing style, Perry was honest enough to say that he just tried to sing like Bing. If Sinatra was ever influenced by anyone, it never showed. He was his own man right from the first.

To think of him as just another cute Italian singer would be misleading: He has absolutely nothing of the old country in his voice. His sound is pure New Jersey Italian, which is another thing altogether. But what a marvelous sound, what a beautiful approach it was, for delivering those bril­liantly catchy or romantically endearing songs of the ’30s and ’40s.

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It is an interesting question as to how and why, in that portion of a journal’s pages usually set aside for analysis of the glorious art of jazz, Sinatra is properly considered a jazz vocal­ist. This will naturally have to be ex­plained, as it would not have to be in the cases of, say, Joe Williams, Mel Torme, Mark Murphy, Kurt Elling, and others whose abilities as practi­tioners of jazz have never been brought into question. But strictly speaking­ — a practice that isn’t particularly popu­lar — Frank never sang a note of jazz in his life. And yet there is some hard-to­-define sensibility — the word hipness comes to mind — that does not make us feel surprised when certain vocalists, over the past half century, while not­ — again strictly speaking — jazz perform­ers, nevertheless were welcome in clubs that specialized in booking jazz performers.

The point is that, despite our wish to think tidily about such matters, such an ideal simply cannot be achieved when the two important relevant components of our perception are (a) jazz and (b) popular singing. Was Billie Holliday a jazz singer? A case can be devel­oped for either a yes or no answer. And the same goes for Peggy Lee, David Allyn, Blos­som Dearie, Johnny Mercer, and a host of other singers, all of whom were marvelous and hip, even if they never changed a single note originally set into musical context by Gershwin, Carmichael, Ellington, Porter, Berlin, and the other giants of the Golden Age of American music.

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God, how we could use Frank now, in his prime, if if were possible to tinker with the great clock of time. I mean now, in an age when much of the theatrical profession is a matter of vulgarians entertaining barbarians; now, when you don’t know what the frig most rock singers are even saying, when even teenage rock addicts concede that they have to listen to an album 14 rimes before they can figure out what the lyrics on various tracks are. Now, in an age when popular singing chiefly involves white zombies stomping around the stage spastically, moving with an incredible lack of grace, wouldn’t it be thrilling to have Frank on camera, on stage, simply and clearly, without effort, enunciating the brilliant lyrics of Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Dorothy Fields? Just Frank, not lunging like a homeless derelict on speed, not wearing thrift-store castoffs, but just standing there in a tux singing “I Should Care” or the verse to “Star Dust.” Most such appealing fantasies are wistful because they have no hope of becoming reality. But this one in a sense can become real because we still have the man’s recordings. In other words, we still have Sinatra at his best.

And that — to put the matter very plainly — is better than any­body else’s best. ❖

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Is Springsteen Worth the Hype?

Two years ago, hardly anyone at Columbia knew how to spell his name, but now his new album, “Born to Run,” due out within the week, is all they can talk about up there. Hope of the future. Big star. Gold record. The works. Across the land, corporate drums are making sure everybody gets the message. A new savior is at hand. The ’70s are being primed for a media killing to the nth degree. Pressing plants work long into the night. The time, as they say in the business, is right.

In Asbury Park, New Jersey, the blood of the poet must be running both hot and cold about this. In the summer of ’72, Bruce Springsteen, winless after half a decade of bar-band wars, had just written several long, very unusual songs — yet another new beginning for him — and was reading Anthony Scaduto’s biogra­phy of Bob Dylan. He’d Just finished the part where Dylan goes up to Columbia, auditions for the legendary John Hammond, walks out with a record contract. One day later, Springsteen and guitar were in Hammond’s office, and history, sensing the chance to live up to its reputation, did indeed repeat itself.

Two LPs later, Bruce could boast moderate album sales, a small but rabid concert audience, and a critical reputation which was fast snowballing. Earlier incomprehension over his music — he was immediately labeled the new Dylan, the new Van Morrison­ — gradually gave way to cult pandemonium. When the eminent Jon Landau saw the singer perform in Boston and wrote, “I have seen rock ‘n’ roll future and its name is Bruce Sprin­gsteen,” the careers of both men soon became intertwined.

Springsteen was having major problems recording a third LP. He and producer-manager Mike Appel had been working for eight months in a Long Island studio: the results were one completed song, “Born to Run,” and such incredible frustra­tion Bruce at times threatened to give up making records altogether. Although “Greetings from Asbury Park N.J.” and “The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle” were highly regarded, almost no one, record company and critics alike, thought they were produced well: and many suspected that it was Springsteen himself who was responsible for the technical agony and ecstasy. Such assumptions were more than partly correct. In the studio, Bruce was astigmatic and shortsighted, a perfectionist who frequently took the long way around simply because he didn’t know the short one. That depression had set in would be an understatement.

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Landau, who had once produced the MC-5 and Livingston Taylor, seemed the perfect solution. He loved the music, understood it, and, equally important, could offer an analytic and pragmatic approach as a logical balance to Springsteen’s mercurial naivete. They liked each other personally. If Landau was somewhat in awe of the kind of instinctual genius who could resolve aesthetic problems by compounding them, Bruce had no less respect for someone who invariably got to 10 by counting out nine individual numbers, one at a time. It was the ideal artistic marriage of creative madness and controlling method.

Together they cut “Thunder Road,” and when Springsteen dis­covered he could write a song one night and successfully record it within the next few days, he was so astonished he began writing and rewriting the rest of the album with renewed intensity. Why hadn’t someone told him it could be this easy? The word easy, however, can have pejorative overtones; and with Bruce, one is never talking about an economy of mood. The singer was convinced he had to de­liver a masterpiece, and since noth­ing is ever perfect, especially to someone whose art is based on vola­tility, it became difficult to decide the exact degree of near-greatness attainable: once he and Landau had started a song off on the right road, Springsteen, out of uncertainty and the increasing pressures of oncom­ing and perhaps unwanted fame, didn’t know when to stop. Or didn’t dare. After all, it could always be better, couldn’t it? People are going to expect so much. Let’s just take a few more weeks because…

“Outside the street’s on fire/In a real death waltz/Between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy/And the poets down here don’t write nothing at all/They just stand back and let it all be/And in the quick of the night/They reach for their moment/And try to make an honest stand/But they wind up wound­ed/Not even dead/Tonight in Jungle­land.”

***

At the Bottom Line. Wednesday. Springsteen begins the first show in almost total darkness, a single blue spotlight faintly limning the singer at the piano during the quiet opening minutes of “Thunder Road.” It is a magic moment, avoiding preten­tiousness only because of works, for Bruce has carefully cultivated the late James Dean’s idiosyncratic timing, added a professional street character’s sense of the dramatic, a dancer’s knack for picaresque tableau, and wrapped the whole package with explosive vulnerability and the practiced pose of a tender hood. Thus the upcoming, split-second move from singular near-silence into vehement, resounding rock ‘n’ roll as the band comes onstage — a trick picked up from r&b groups and one which Springsteen will repeat all night — is a surprise only to the uninitiated, a delicious treat to the aficionado. The house has gone wild.

The night has an air of expectancy — one may even say privilege: there is an intensity present, a premonition that this is where the best music in America might well be happening in the next few hours, and the hope that it may be true. All 10 shows, Wednesday through Sunday, have been sold out for weeks, but at two o’clock this afternoon, a line began to form at Mercer and Fourth. By seven, several hundred kids were milling about in a pouring rain, gambling at long odds on the chance to buy one of the 36 standing-room­ only tickets. Inside the club, every other person is carrying either a notebook or camera to certify the event. Both Springsteen and the band seem aware of threat and promise, and try too hard. A bunch of South Shore street punks all sharped up for a big night in New York town, they are so charged with energy and good humor they push right past the audience, pointlessly sending the lost wail of barrio serenades all the way up to Eighth Avenue, surely one of Bruce’s spiritual homes.

If the street’s on fire outside, inside so are we, the singer seems to be saying from the secret heart of those small-town rock ‘n’ rollers set loose for the first time with booze and cars in Neon City. Hey, man, did you see that? Sexy innocents hang out on corners, soaking up urban vignettes, and striving in vain for the obscene loveliness of the true street hustler. From the cheap seats in Jersey, “Thunder Road” is Springsteen’s recurrent American dream, yet another incarnation of the run away and his woman — gimme my girl and let us outa here! — trying for the ultimate escape, no questions asked, no promises given: “Hey, what else can we do now?/…Well, the night’s busting open/…We got one last chance to make it real.”

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One last chance to make it real is the way Bruce approaches his concerts, too. Everything must get crammed in, whether it fits or not, the story lines accelerating until both singer and band reach bursting point so often that what is at first exhilarating and climactic later become mere hysterical redundancy. Too many times, one 20-minute song will follow another, their formats so similar the mind begs for brevity or at least a different set of reflexes with which to respond. Happily, Springsteen has dropped completely what appeared to be a creeping narcissism in many of last year’s concerts — in comparison, he is natu­ralness personified now — but he still has not learned that less can be more, that one well-aimed bullet can create just the kind of impact he wants while a dozen random shots may do nothing so much as bum out an audience before their time has come. Granted, he is a master at those small bits of stage business that can suddenly illuminate occasional dark alleys, but why he chooses to walk such mean streets at all remains a mystery.

Actually, Sunday night’s initial show makes practically any criticism obsolete. For the first time all week, the singer seems flexible and relaxed — Chaplin’s mobile tramp and Valentino’s slippery lover playfully filling the air with smoky mise-en-scene from an antic ’40s film noire, then delivering a Bogart, brass-knuckled haymaker that puts everyone away. It’s “Casablanca” all over again, with a gaucho Groucho in the lead. The pacing is much improved, the set structure faultless. Nothing gets repetitious. From a near-perfect mixture of bright talk (the introduction to “E Street Shuffle”), fast ones (“Born to Run”), oldies (the Searchers’ “When You Walk in the Room”), palpably intimate slow songs (in the middle of the set, “Thunder Road,” done strict­ly solo), and raging rockers (the best “Rosalita” yet), Springsteen fashions the kind of seamless, 150-minute performance that most ar­tists can only dream about, never realize. On my feet, clapping, never wanting it to end, I ask myself when I’ve ever been so moved by a con­cert.

Four times: Dylan doing “Like a Rolling Stone” anywhere in ’65 or ’66, the Rolling Stones at the Garden in ’72, Jackson Browne in Toronto in ’73, and a few of the New York Dolls’ late shows at the Mercer Art Center that same year.

All of the above, of course, indicates that even Springsteen’s weak­nesses stem from too much talent, not too little. When you can achieve just about anything you want on­stage it’s hard not to stay there until you’ve rung all the bells; and one often gets the feeling that Bruce is having so much fun he’d gladly pay the crowd to let him do just that. Ironically, if he weren’t as good as he is — and he is close to being the best we have — no one would be concerned with such minor issues as pace and overreach. In the long run, the sta­mina and purity of personal vision should be applauded. To be tena­ciously naive is far preferable to following the safe, downhill path which leads straight into the for­mulaic nowhere of much of today’s music business. Small wonder he wants to keep clear of that and case the promised land on his own.

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***

Yet there it is, out there like an anxious Jack the Ripper, eagerly awaiting to confer the bloody award. In the East, Springsteen is already a legend — in Washington, D.C., ad­vance orders on his new album al­ready outnumber those for Elton John’s — and he has made great inroads in Texas, and parts of the Midwest. The South and the Far West remain question marks, but the smart money is betting there’ll be a new star in rock ‘n’ roll heaven when “Born to Run” is released.

I wouldn’t doubt it. For me, it’s his best record, curbing most of the excess but none of the force of the only artist I know who could combine the sound of Phil Spector with the singing of Roy Orbison. (The names come from Bruce.) “Born to Run” lists three producers — Springsteen, Landau, Appel — but Landau freely acknowledges that “Bruce made every important artistic decision on the LP. The biggest thing I learned from him was the ability to concentrate on the big picture. ‘Hey, wait a second,’ he would say, ‘The release date is just one day, but the record is forever.” Mike’s great strength in the studio was his energy, his ability to keep everybody’s spirit together. No matter how bad it got, he could always get things going again.”

***

Out front, fame is at the door and knocking loudly. There’s too much light out there, and the countdown has begun. In the back, under the haze of a romantic’s moon, maybe no one will notice two figures on a fire escape jump down and run hand-in-­hand through tenement backstreets toward Spanish Harlem. On Broad­way, it’s midnight in Manhattan, so walk tall, somebody says. Walk tall or, baby, don’t walk at all.

Everything is quiet. Only a whis­per.

“Sandy, the aurora is risin’ behind us/Those pier lights, our carnival life forever/Oh, love me tonight for I may never see you again/Hey, Sandy girl, my baby.”

Quieter. But if we’re lucky, Bruce sighs,

“Maybe we could slip away/Maybe we could steal away /Maybe we could slip away/Just for a second.”

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Cars & Swipes Forever

Just what I needed: another band with Roxy Music/Velvet Underground leanings, another lead singer in shades, another dose of cut-rate Camus. So many bands now genuflect before these idols that I’ve taken to plugging my ears at the first glint of black leather. But even though the Cars’ songwriter/rhythm guitarist/vocalist Ric Ocasek sports the cliched wrap-arounds and leather pants, this band still conveys the thrill of it all. When ennui’s just no fun anymore, The Cars neatly fulfills anyone’s minimum daily requirement for irony.

Their sensibility is appropriately detached. Ocasek makes it clear in “My Best Friend’s Girl,” when he fractures the word “love” into five bored syllables, that he’s beyond romance (and thus even more cold-blooded that Roxy’s Bryan Ferry or the Velvets’ Lou Reed). Passion? “I don’t mind you coming here,” Ocasek shrugs in “Just What I Needed,” “I needed someone to feed” and later “I needed someone to bleed” — a strange variation on the old in-out. He goes so far as to blurt, “I need you!” in “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” but this time he expects what might be termed mere sex; the girl will apparently “hurt,” “mock,” and “abuse” him, and he doesn’t care. Ocasek inhabits a mechanical universe, where “everything is science fiction,” girls are mere facts of life, lust is an impersonal force like gravity — and human contacts are nothing more than collisions. “Don’t Cha Stop,” an actual seduction, reads like notes on animal behavior: “right here your hands are soft and creamy.” His tone stays matter-of-fact, more clinical than cynical, never disillusioned because he had no illusions to begin with. And if he feels pain — or much else — it stays between the lines.

The key to the Cars, though, isn’t their irony. It’s the chrome — tunes, arrangements, effects, hooks. Naturally, given Ocasek’s pose, many of these are swiped. Ocasek’s singing is a Reed/Ferry amalgam — rock’s equivalent of sprechstimme — and the Cars are fond of ostinato drones that tick-tock in steady eighth-notes (a la Roxy). The effect is cold, alienated, particularly in philosophical outings like “Good Times Roll,” “I’m in Touch With Your World” and “Moving in Stereo.” Where Roxy’s arrangements were entropical, though, the Cars have everything arranged tighter than an expensive alibi.

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Cars’ charts are gleaming and efficient — they deliver their hooks. Generally a rhythm guitar riff turns into a power bottom, the vocal chants in the center, and a repeating keyboard countermelody overlaps both of them. On the LP, the production is so meticulously skeletal that it makes the live Cars sound cluttered by comparison. They probably aren’t, because as far as I can tell they play the LP’s arrangements verbatim onstage (leads excepted), but a loud, indifferent mix at the Bottom Line filled in a lot of spaces. Ocasek is careful not to dominate the group, although he’s a head taller than any of his cohorts. Apparently, he wants to locate the Cars’ personality in their five-man mesh — that way, he stays objective. Live or recorded, there’s no wasted motion: Ocasek’s rhythm and Elliot Easton’s lead guitars never play unisons, and keyboard man Greg Hawkes very rarely uses more than one finger at a time. Vocal harmonies underline choruses (which echo the song titles) and nothing else. For all Ocasek’s lyrical distance, his songs decode immediately.

They’re also downright catchy. At his best, Ocasek bal­ances dehumanizing Anglo-European obsessions with loose­-goose American rock — and that’s the Cars’ winning option. The single, “Just What I Needed,” uses a harmony chorus to cushion its sparse power chords and synthesizer hook. “My Best Friend’s Girl” places a riff stolen from the Rockin’ Re­bels’ “Wild Weekend” (a fact gleaned from a Dennis Elsas segue on WNEW-FM) in a more jaded context, but ties up each verse with a twangy rockabilly riff. It’s homey, reassur­ing, like finding a Burger King bag in a white-on-white loft kitchen.

Ocasek’s instincts are strong. He’s a master riffer, whether he’s playing, writing or, er, borrowing. He knows just where to bolster a tune with an instrumental jolt. And the Cars as an ensemble execute the songs with perfect discipline and pan­ache. Only when Ocasek lets artsy ideas run away with him — as in “I’m in Touch With Your World,” a static, met­ronomic track whose sound effects and one great riff don’t create enough drama — does the group falter.

For me, the Cars are best when they’re least committed to their lack of ideals. At the end of “Just What I Needed,” af­ter the chorus has repeated itself out, bassist Benjamin Orr’s part calls for him to belt out a genuinely anguished solo “Yea — aah, Yea-aaaaah!” It’s the best moment on a brilliant record, because for about three full seconds no image matters at all.

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Outlaws as Oligarchs: Waylon and Willie Outsell ’Em All

Last month RCA’s Outlaws, an anthology of cuts by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser, and Jessi Colter, outsold Bob Dylan’s Desire, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Gimme Back My Bullets, and various other pop heavyweights; it also outsold every country album on the market.

Irony flourishes in an industry of schemes. For more than 50 years, country music has had a thirst for the pop charts, a thirst that has been satisfied by such men as Vernon Dalhart in the 1920s, Gene Autry in the 1930s, Eddy Arnold in the 1940s, Elvis Presley in the 1950s, and Johnny Cash in the 1960s. But in recent years that thirst became a spectacle of gaudy desperation, as country music devolved shamelessly into Easy Listening. When Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors,” the classic middle-of-the-road country song, crossed over to the pop market, country music rushed to imitate its success. The ensuing kitsch did little but alienate much of the existing country market, and things got so bad, so hideously bland that Chet Atkins, one of the people guilty of changing the music to middle-of-the-road mush, did gentle penance by apologizing publicly for what he had done.

Enter Willie Nelson and his first Columbia album, Red Headed Stranger. Made at an out-of-the-way studio in Garland, Texas, at a cost of only $3000, Red Headed Stranger was all that country music had ceased to be: hard edges and inner graces. There were people at the company whose brains puked at the thought of releasing such a record, but Willie won out by agreeing to cut his next two albums in the accepted fashion if Red Headed Stranger failed to make money. The album was released in October 1975. It hit the top of the country charts, then it went high on the pop charts, as a single from the album, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” (which Elton Britt had recorded in 1945), became the biggest crossover hit since “Behind Closed Doors.” And that’s how Willie Nelson, after 17 years of moiling against the country music industry’s grain, finally took the wheel.

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Willie and others whom the industry had considered freakish growths upon its Dresden-doll skin were now given credence and respect. Teeth went tight with wrath in 1970 when Kristofferson showed up in street clothes to accept his CMA award for “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” but at the 1975 awards ceremony similarly unorthodox behavior by Waylon Jennings was loudly applauded. The day of the outlaws had come.

There are true tales about many of the old-line country singers, tales of gunplay and whisky and dunes and dunes of Benzedrine and high-heeled caravans of open-mouthed girl-things, garish Iliads of honky-tonk excesses that are rarely encountered except in Don Siegel movies. But these men were never considered outlaws, for they never allowed their personal lives to tint their public images. You either stayed in the closet or you repented publicly, as Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard did. If you fucked up, the consequences were grave, as Hank Williams discovered when he was thrown off the Opry. These were the grievous angels Gram Parsons spoke of.

Nothing those old-timers did pissed off the industry as Kristofferson had in 1970 with his sins against decorum. There he stood, the most successful songwriter of the season, and he just didn’t seem to give a fuck. This surly yanking at the paternal dewlap, this was outlawry of a kind that none of the old-timers would have dared. But you can’t throw someone off the Opry if he’s never cared about being on it. Within a year, Kris had become a star beyond reprehension. His “Me and Bobby McGee,” which had been a country hit for Roger Miller, became a pop hit for Janis Joplin in the summer of 1971, and when Kris’s second album, The Silver-Tongued Devil and I, was released that same summer, it crossed over to the top of the pops.

Five years earlier that could not have happened, but by 1971 the cultural paradigm was changing. White suburban punkdom pushed aside its pretensions of social conscience as one would a copy of “Raised Skirts and Bare Buns” after jerking off. The ’60s were an embarrassing diary in the eyes of the ’70s, and Black Sabbath and Lou Reed were the sound of that diary burning. In a way, Kristofferson was also. Kids who a few years before had affected a vicarious identification with the culture of colored folk now began adopting the ways of the redneck eidos.

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When Willie Nelson started performing with younger, rock-bred people on their mutual Austin turf in 1972, the thrill of benediction was felt. Willie convinced his friends, such as Waylon Jennings and Tompall Glaser, that these long-haired kids were a great country audience, and they too began performing for the kids. Austin became to country music of the ’70s what San Francisco was to rock of the ’60s, a college town turned secondary music capital, and in Michael Murphey’s “Cosmic Cowboy” the scene found its anthem. Willie and Waylon started making music as they had rarely done before; albums such as Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes and Willie’s Phases and Stages ooh’d and yelled with freedom.

Staring plainly if numbly at the overwhelming success of Willie’s Red Headed Stranger, the country music corpus could no longer ignore the weird beast that had grown within its stomach, so it accepted it as it has always accepted success. Industry people looked back on Kristofferson without anger and told anyone who would listen that they knew Willie way back when and what a good old boy he was.

These guys are oligarchs now, not outlaws, and to consider them outlaws in 1976 is silly except as nostalgia. A battle was fought and the good guys won, it’s as simple as that. The effects of the victory are many and glorious. Willie Nelson, the William Carlos Williams of neon, hadn’t had a Top Ten country record since 1962, and now he’s the most popular country singer in America. Waylon Jennings, who had always had hits but had never really let loose, is now making the best country music the world has heard since the ’50s. Tompall Glaser, the most innovative and knowing country artist of recent years, is finally getting some of the recognition due him. And, perhaps most important, a lot of the older artists who had been seduced into a more middle-of-the-road sound are easing back toward the source. George Jones told me last month that his next album will be done without orchestral frills or any other sweetening, and I think when he and producer Billy Sherrill make that album, more people will become aware of what George Jones is: the greatest singer alive.

But the romance that has replaced the reality of the outlaws is starting to give off an ominous, electric odor. An outlaw establishment threatens. Texas Music, a slick Dallas monthly which published its first issue this month, will not publish any negative comments about the outlaws, a policy that reeks of the ways of such established fluff-rags as Country Song Roundup and Music City News. During the early months of 1976, industry people cased out Austin, and it is more than probable that a less manicured extension of the music establishment will be seeping into Texas before too long. I shuddered when RCA mailed out plastic, made-in-Korea vests with the Waylon logo stenciled on their backs. Will personae of outlawry be affected like so many Nudie suits? Will new teeth gnash when Ernest Tubb shows up in suit and tie to accept his award of recognition from the Outlaw Music Association?

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It’s depressing to hear kids in Austin, kids supposedly swept away with interest in western swing, tell about how great the Light Crust Doughboys were. The Light Crust Doughboys were an awful band, sort of like the Archies of western swing, and none of those kids have ever heard a Light Crust Doughboys record or they’d know it. The mystique for them is more important than the music. They say they love western swing, but sitting totally ignored in a Houston apartment, playing his fiddle for an audience of furniture and wallpaper, is 61-year-old Cliff Bruner, the greatest western swing veteran alive.

Some came out of the outlaw scuffle empty-handed. Bobby Bare tried his best to fit in with the desperados, but made the mistake of loading his pistols with Shel Silverstein songs. Billy Joe Shaver, one of the most gifted songwriters involved in the scene, went berserk with his own image and his recent music resembles a large, bragging saddle sore. Tom T. Hall, in the midst of it all, went and recorded a song that included the line, “I love little baby ducks.” David Allan Coe, the Joey Gallo of Country Music, remains an acquired taste, like Carstairs and Coke.

Willie, Waylon, Tompall, and the others who fought and won the war against blandness love country music as much as Hank Williams did, and they make country music better than Hank did. That’s why I hope they don’t end up heading down the wrong highway, or find themselves like John Lee Hooker, totemized on a stage before a mass of ceremonially appreciative trails.

Besides, there is work still to be done. I suggest that all pardoned outlaws unite to wreak God’s will: Amnesty for Jerry Lee Lewis!

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The Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan Goes Public

It might be said that over the past few weeks Bob Dylan has gone public. He has shown up to see Paul Smith and Muddy Waters and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; he has sat in at the Other End; he has hung out. One night around three in the morning, after Bobby Neuwirth’s club set, Dylan sat and performed new material for over an hour at the Other End bar — a song about Joey Gallo, a song about marrying Isis — and except for Muddy Waters all of the aforementioned musicians were part of an audience that included more than one journalist and several hundred gawkers. Also present was that old Dylan imitator, Ian Hunter, who was having his head blown off — not only had Dylan identified him as a member of Mott the Hoople (which he’s not any more, as if Hunter could care) but he’d known all the tracks on Hunter’s (or was it Mott’s) first album. Unbelievable.

This is news. For almost a decade, Dylan’s need to armor himself against the attentions of his admirers has played a large part in the way we think about him — even though sightings have been common sine early 1968, it has been the alarming 18-month period of complete seclusion just before then that’s stuck in our minds. Of course, all that began to change subtly after his 1974 tour with the Band. If it’s going too far to say that Dylan has been demythified, then at least what remained of his divinity has dissipated, with all his party scenes and benefits and rumors reduced to the goings-on of a Major Rock Star who can almost keep his co-stars’ groups straight. But since for his acolytes from the folk days these hootenanny visitations seem to portend a New Eden, old friends singing songs of innocence and experience together once again, it is well to remind ourselves that the beginnings of the change were quite unelevated — commonplace almost by definition, since they served to reintroduce Dylan to the commonalty.

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The process began with the tour itself, a Major Rock Event of a familiar kind, and was accelerated by reports of breaches in that magical domestic fortress that had long separated Dylan from ordinary mortals. But it has also involved a fact that is arguably as much economic as it is artistic: a sudden profusion of recorded material following three years of near-drought, years that yielded a total of eight new tracks, a movie score, and a corporate rip-off. In contrast, the past 18 months have brought forth five discs (not counting two halves by the Band) — four albums, two of them doubles: Planet Waves, Before the Flood, Blood on the Tracks, and the newly released Basement Tapes.

The critical front-runner among these albums is clearly Blood on the Tracks. I myself called it Dylan’s best since John Wesley Harding when it came out in January — and then didn’t play it three times before I began to write this piece. Listening now, I am stirred once again by the tact and persistent musicality of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” and by the dovetailing delicacy of “Tangled Up in Blue” (lost love recalled) and “Buckets of Rain” (love’s loss foreseen) — stirred, in fact, by the sheer craft of the whole endeavor. Dylan has never been a confessional writer, but this control of aesthetic distance on Blood on the Tracks is a small coup: “Tangled Up in Blue,” which cannot describe the facts of his life, and “You’re a Big Girl Now,” which can, are both enlivened by the same seemingly autobiographical intimacy, but both are without question comely objects first and foremost.

That’s the critic in me talking, of course, the same fellow who’s always making deadline judgments before the listener in me has a chance to live with the music. The listener admires Blood on the Tracks, likes it a lot, but he thinks: it’s meaningless to call it Dylan’s best album since John Wesley Harding when he never feels like putting it on. To the listener, Blood on the Tracks sounds suspiciously like product, and when it comes to product he happens to prefer Steely Dan to Dylan just as he prefers Hydrox to Oreos or Lorna Doones.

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Not that Dylan is capable of putting out product in the manner of a Major Rock Professional. He has always resisted that. It has been his practice to just go into the studio and cut, so that a lot of what gets onto the LP you buy in the store is first and second takes. Chuck Berry and the early Beatles were recorded this way, but over the past decade it has become customary (if not compulsory) to put more quality control into the manufacture of rock and roll, and Blood on the Tracks sounds as if it consents to what is best about such standards. It has pace, flow, variety; it tolerates few if any gaffes; it is well made. This is partly because Dylan decided to re-record some of the original Eric Weissberg sessions with other musicians in Minneapolis, which enabled him to combine two different musical moods on the same disc. Much more telling, though, is the way the record shifts vocally, from a mock-callow whine to variants on the rounder and juicier rock and roll voice of New Morning and Greatest Hits Volume II.

Dylan’s alacrity in the studio hardly commits him to spontaneity, especially to spontaneity as it is commonly understood — the free play of the undefended self and so forth. On the contrary, Dylan is always guarded — he knows almost exactly what will happen when he records. Each release is intended to objectify a preordained concept that is both quickened and preserved for posterity by his instant studio technique. Particularly since Blonde on Blonde, the vehicle of each concept has been a voice that in some way exemplifies it, the most extreme example being the high lonesome tenor of Nashville Skyline. This is to say that Dylan has continually and deliberately remodeled his singing voice, with a dual purpose: to project himself into the world and to armor himself against it. For him to relax this control on Blood on the Tracks is yet another kind of going public. But it also relinquishes the obsessiveness that makes eccentric records like Planet Waves and Before the Flood so compelling for me.

Unlike many people I admire, I’ve never played my Dylan records repeatedly or even regularly. Their conceptual strictness has discouraged both easy listening — even Nashville Skyline, for all its calculated pleasantness, never fit smoothly into my days — and full personal identification. And so the listener in me subconsciously vetoes the critic; there are times when I crave a specific Dylan record with a fervor of the will no other artist can arouse in me, and I value him immensely for that, but only rarely can he just be part of a stack. Lacking the totally committed professionalism of meaningful/listenable masterpieces like Layla and Exile on Main Street, Blood on the Tracks fails to achieve what I suspect was intended for it — a place in the stack with just such records, all of which it melts or freezes just because it is so distinctively Dylan. I could make up reasons explaining why it’s as precise conceptually as anything he’s done — the many voices of love, something like that — and there’s no way it won’t rank high in my year-end top 10. But it’s a half-measure.

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The Basement Tapes, on the other hand, is no kind of measure at all, and that is its secret. These are the famous lost songs recorded with the Band at Big Pink in 1967 and later bootlegged on The Great White Wonder and elsewhere. Of the 18 Dylan compositions included, 12 have by now been heard in legitimate commercial versions by other artists, and another, “Down in the Flood,” was recut by Dylan himself for Greatest Hits Volume II; one of the remaining five, “Going to Acapulco,” has never ever been bootlegged, and neither have any of the six Band songs, which I would adjudge to be among their very best work. Sound quality has been greatly improved. Greil Marcus, who wrote the notes, tells me he hears instruments that are entirely inaudible on his second-generation tape. All of which begins to sketch in the complicated recording history of work that was never meant to be reproduced at all.

Well, not quite. The Band songs are relatively polished; it is said that the scaricomic “Yazoo Street Scandal” was presented as a demo to Clive Davis, who rejected it. But the Dylan songs are work tapes at best, first stabs at arrangements barely roughed out, preliminary even by Dylan’s abrupt standards. The main reason they were taped was so that they could be transcribed and copyrighted by Albert Grossman’s office. They weren’t ever supposed to go out to other artists, much less be circulated among the faithful as proof that the avatar was alive and creative in Woodstock. So the music is certifiably unpremeditated, a candid shot from a hero who has turned to his friends and coworkers after coming too close to death to enjoy the arrogance of power any longer. The concepts that are to arise from this interaction among equals will eventually take form as the dry, contained John Wesley Harding and the supercharged, eccentric Music From Big Pink; at this juncture, however, artist and group have arrived at a more moderate synthesis, merely simple and quirkish, and couldn’t care less whether they’re only passing through. No organizing principle keeps the music in line.

The basement tapes were the original laid-back rock, early investigations of a mode that would eventually come to pervade the whole music. Not that they suggested any of the complacent slickness now associated with the term — just that they were lazy as a river and rarely relentless or precise. In 1967, this was impermissible. Even the Grateful Dead, who were also trying to meld individualistic musicians into a rocking flow while rummaging through the American mythos with an antirealistic aesthetic, were so fixated on the triumph of Sgt. Pepper that they forsook the sweet relaxation of their debut album for Anthem of the Sun, a technologically brilliant failure. An inspired artificiality was the rule. I suspect that both Dylan and the Band were afraid, if not consciously then instinctively, that their concepts had to be strong and pure if they were to survive this heady competition. So instead of nurturing the basement music, they transformed simple into dry and contained and quirkish into supercharged and eccentric. And maybe they did right. Remember that the bootlegs didn’t show up until 1969; I wonder how they would have been received in late 1967.

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But I wonder primarily for purposes of argument. I find this music irresistible, and I can’t believe that any slicking up to which Dylan and his boys might have succumbed would have harmed it. Like a drunk falling out of a first-story window, it’s just too loose to break much. Over the years it’s been the more writerly “serious” songs that people have talked about — not only “I Shall Be Released” (omitted here), but “Tears of Rage,” “This Wheel’s on Fire,” “Too Much of Nothing,” “Nothing Was Delivered” — and to this group can now be added “Going to Acapulco,” which I would describe (roughly) as the lament of the singer-songwriter as gigolo, so mournful about “going to have some fun” that he anticipates the watchtower: “Now when someone offers me a joke I just say no thanks/I try to tell it like it is and keep away from pranks.”

Like the others, this is a richly suggestive piece of work, and like the others — especially “Tears of Rage” — it’s all the richer for being surrounded by pranks. The many nonsense songs here are unequalled in Dylan’s work; even Greil Marcus’s comparisons to the likes of “Froggy Went A-Courtin'” falls a little short. Could Pecos Bill boast: “I can drink like a fish/I can crawl like a snake/I can bite like a turkey/I can slam like a drake”? Could Carl Perkins tell Sam Phillips: “Gonna save my money and rip it up!”? What are we to make of Turtle, “With his checks all forged/And his cheeks in a chunk”? And why don’t you get that apple off your fly?

These songs are too contemporary to be subject to pop notices of timeliness. Just as “Going to Acapulco” is a dirge about having fun, so “Don’t Ya Tell Henry” is a ditty about separation from self, and when the complementary irony of these two modes combines with the Band’s more conventional (“realistic”) approach to lyrics, the mix that results can be counted on to make as much sense in 1983 as it did in 1967. The power of melody-lyric-performance transcends petty details of sound levels (which vary enough to shock any well-respected studio technician) and shifting vocal styles. We don’t have to bow our heads in shame because this is the best album of 1975. It would have been the best album of 1967, too. The music is so free I bet it can even be stacked, but I’ve been playing it too repeatedly to find out.

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What is most lovable about the album, though, is simply the way it unites public and private, revealing a Dylan armed in the mystery of his songs but divested of the mystique of celebrity with which we has surrounded his recording career for almost a decade. It would be impossible to plan such exposure, and however much the album’s release has to do with generous royalties from CBS or the supposed sagging of the Band, it’s nice to know that he feels secure enough to do it. There he is, folks. When he giggled at the beginning of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” he was just being coy; the mishap ceased to be a mishap once it was pressed and released. But when he almost breaks out laughing in the middle of “Please, Mrs. Henry,” he’s really there.

The night after Dylan’s impromptu bar concert, I checked out the Other End, not so much for the listener in me as for the critic/journalist, who didn’t expect Dylan to show and would have felt like an asshole to miss him. What all of us got instead was some good music — Jack Elliott and Mick Ronson backing Patti Smith on “Angel Baby” qualifies as a blessed event — and much okay music and Bobby Neuwirth scratching his own back. I found the vibes insular and self-satisfied. But Dylan is reported to be happy to be back on the street again, and if it makes him happy then I’m happy too. Good music happens there.

When I talk about Dylan going public, though, that won’t be what I mean. I’ll be talking about The Basement Tapes, the singer-songwriter exposed in front of hundreds of thousands — I hope millions — of listeners. What a friendly thing to do.

This and other classic Voice stories can also be be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published in 2018.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Riffs: Be Grateful You’re Dead

RIFFS: Be Grateful You’re Dead

The Grateful Dead have lost a lot of weight. Pigpen is almost svelte, and Bill the Drummer doesn’t look so good. Musically they’ve added so much weight that their old album (new one due in July) now sounds like your speakers have turned to sieves. You first heard it in December those two night at the the Village Theatre. What is the the same is the purity. No tricks, just music, hard, lyric, joyous — pure and together, dense and warm as a dark summer country night. There’s the Dead, and then there’s everybody else.

That spiraling new riff that comes through almost everything they play now — including the old stuff, pushed hard by Bill and the New Drummer, winds above you, around you, swoops you into a driving, pulsing, always always musical solid state of energy — enough to (incredibly) lift at least one New York audience to its feet dancing last week. Sunday in the park. They nearly caused a civic disturbance by stopping when the permit said they had to (disturbance cooled by Bill Graham). It was beautiful. The audience — a little wiped out from hours of Butterfield Blues, Airplane, crush, and waiting — milled and sat. The Dead played: it was New York, but it was a free concert, in a park on a sunny Sunday. The Airplane, back in the bandshell listening, grooved. The Dead started cooking. Suddenly teeny bopper was up down front, all lime green and longhair and motion. The row of photographers in front of her were up. Then the audience, not in rows, but en masse, was up, dancing, screaming, frenzied. A firecracker went off onstage. Bubblegum flew. A drumhead popped and drumsticks flew. The band grooved on. Everyone onstage was dancing. Suddenly it was over. There WAS something like it once before. Newport, Duke Ellington, Jonah Jones wailing in the wings on rolled-up newspaper, 27 choruses by Sal Salvadore. The audience was wild. The Newport cops requested and got an end to that. There was no riot then. But that was Newport, and New York audiences don’t come lightly to their feet. There was no riot this time either, of course — there was football in the meadow and a promise of three nights at the Electric Circus.

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The night before, in a set without a break that lasted over two hours, they played one epic number that lasted over one hour. The Dead were at Stony Brook, but the audience was nowhere at all, perhaps partly because the lightshow, which was good, very good in its own right, but inexperienced, was off on some trip that intruded on the music instead of backing it.

Tuesday the Dead opened (at a stiff $4.50 a head) at the Circus, which has good acoustics and is a generally relaxed place to listen. Their first tune is always a shambles — “You’ll have to wait till we figure out who we are and what we’re doing here,” says Jerry Garcia. When they find out, Garcia climbs all over your head with those beautiful riffs shot out of outer space; Bob Weir is there, always there, building, building; Phil Lesh, those long sets; Pigpen, riding everything. There’s the Dead, and then there’s everybody else.

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Wednesday, after one set that was nearly perfect, they busted eardrums with a full-volume “Viola Le” — retaliation on a non-dancing audience, not their best sound or act. It’s a drag that they’re dragged by non-dancing. New York’s not quite ready, but if they stayed here it would happen sooner. It’s still hard to move and hear simultaneously, but at least they raised one audience last week,

Thursday they played a touching “He Was a Friend of Mine,” then I understand some Kew Gardens mama invaded the stage and broke up the last set. Lesh booted her where appropriate, drumsticks flew again (aimed this time), Weir got beaned by a flying cymbal, the drummers stalked off. I wouldn’t know. Suffering a back strained by nearly a week of sitting backless and standing for the Dead, I was kacked out in the dark rear of the Circus. Where do THEY get the energy?

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

In the Sahara, Searching for the Rolling Stones

Arm-wrestling the Midnight Rambler to a draw

Last November I read an article in Harper’s by Professor William Irwin Thompson of the Humanities program at York University, Toronto, entitled “Planetary Vistas.” It was prefaced with three italicized analogies, the first of which ran as follows:

ANALOGY ONE

“Imagine insects with a life-span of two weeks, and then imagine further that they are trying to build up a science about the nature of time and history. Clearly, they cannot build a model on the basis of a few days in summer. So let us endow them with a language and a culture through which they can pass on their knowledge to future generations. Summer passes, then autumn; finally it is winter. The winter insects are a whole new breed, and they perfect a new and revolutionary science on the basis of the ‘hard facts’ of their perceptions of snow. As for the myths and legends of summer: certainly the intelligent insects are not going to believe the superstitions of their primitive ancestors.”

***

We left Massachusetts the day of the first snow, for Africa. I will not tell you what country we went to because the next time I need to lick my index finger and hold it up to the solar wind I won’t want a gallery. Suffice it to say that it was the geographical ozone of the pre-Saharean mountain wilderness, a place where the map makers fudge and the guides shill. We did not know what we would find where we were going which was just as well since in the ozone if you think you know where you are going you will get lost but if you don’t know where you are going you may lose yourself. We drove toward the Sahara on a corugated track that was wider on the map than it was on the ground. An hour after the sun went down it might as well have been midnight and when after 50 kilometers of pre-Saharean zilch we turned a switchback and the Fiat headlit the rusted-out exoskeleton of an upside-down Land Rover, we realized that the end of the road would not be when the road disappeared — the one we were on hadn’t appeared in the first place — but when it became more treacherous to try to turn around then to keep on going, that what is terminal about the end of the road is not that it stops you, but that past it you may go further than you can.

“I could really dig finding a place where there was mountain music,” I said.

“Like in that Leary book,” Alison said.

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We had holed up for a few days that summer with a husband and wife dealer team in the Santa Cruz hills and they had a copy of Timothy Leary’s “Prison Notes,” in which the acid exile tells how novelist and ab initio way-station on the hash trail Brion Gysin had taken him from Tangiers into the Rif Mountains to hear the piping and drumming and singing of the Master Musicians of Joujouka who, Gysin had discovered, still celebrated — on the pretext of the Muslim Ramadan — the Roman Lupercalia, the annual feast of Pan, patron of forests, pastures, fields, and flocks. “The World’s Oldest Rock and Roll Band,” Leary, blown quite away, called them.

“Too much to ask,” I said.

We had long overdriven the odometer reading that should have put us in a village with a small inn before we came in sight of a group of buildings, windows dark as a pre-Saharean midnight, which we took to be the hotel. “Check-out time,” I announced, and began to backtrack four or five hours to the last place we had stayed. When I went forward the Fiat bottomed out on the mount between the wheel-ruts; when I went back the Fiat began to slip down the embankment toward the desert floor several thousand feet below.

So, we stopped and waited for an intervention.

The geographical ozone is a realm of supraordinary synchronicity so we didn’t have long to wait. Down the hillside came a flashlight, carried by — why, a waiter, of course, in a white coat, carrying a towel over his arm. He motioned us in the direction of a switchback so steep it looked like a hill you would build a switchback to climb. It led to the parking lot of the hotel. We were not burdened by relief any longer than was necessary to step into the entrance hall of the place, a long room with a bar at the end. Along the left-hand wall sat two young German couples staring goggle-eyed at the opposite wall along which were sitting 12 young Berber men, mumbling, moaning, and grunting, occasionally coming into phase rhythmically just long enough to resolve a melody, then lapsing into a silence whose discomfort they attempted to relieve by much adjusting of burnooses and subrespiratory chuckling.

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“Too much — ,” I said, taking my seat opposite them.

” — to ask,” said Alison.

The boy behind the bar brought us a bottle of wine. Delightful boy. Most remarkable boy.

We drank it.

He brought us another.

We drank it too.

Still the burbling up and down of rhythms and melodies. Some ten­tative finger-tapping on table tops. Some clapping of hands. Silence. And then, at length, a young man at the far end of the room spoke.

“Bon soir m’sieur madame. Est-ce que vous connaissez … ‘Sex Machine?’ ”

It was the only time I had ever felt like I needed a drink when I was already drunk.

“Oui,” I managed.

Affirmative aahhing and urrhing from underneath the hoods across from me.

“Par Zhems Bquun?” he asked. Zhems Bquun? Oh!

“Oui. Oui Oui,” I ouied.

“Pourriez-vous le chanter?” he asked.

I tried to sing it as best I could — I did James Brown all right, but the Famous Flames parts were sort of rough. When I was done they all shook their hands out of their burnooses and applauded.

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”Maintenant, connaissez-vous ‘Hold On, Ahm Comingue?’ ” said he for whom it was too much to ask.

“Oui,” I said, “mais nous desirons vous ecouter!”

“Non,” he laughed, and spoke to the others. in Berber. “Non, non, non,” said the others, laughing.

“Oui!” I insisted.

“Non non non,” he said.

“Oui, nous voulons que vous chantez pour nous.”

‘N’est pas possible.”

“Je vous en prie, messieurs!”

“Nous vous en prions,” he said. “Nous ne pouvons pas chanter comme Sam et Dev.”

“Non! Pas Sam and Dave!” Oy. “Votre musique — un chanson, er, natif!”

“Eh?”

“Uhh — un chanson … local?”

“Nous ne vous comprenons pas,” he said apologetically.

“Mmmm — un chanson de ce ville-ci.”

“Est-ce que vous voulez dire, un chanson folklorique?”

So that’s what they call folklore in French Africa — la folklore.

“Oui, oui, bien sur, folklorique, oui, s’il vous plait.”

And they immediately struck up an air, 12 voices insinuating a song composed exclusively of grace notes arranged in synco­pated triplets. It was unques­tionably the most folklorique sound I had ever heard. And, strangely, I found it evocative of the Rolling Stones: How thoroughly bizarre, I thought.

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When they were done, my in­terlocutor, who, it turned out, spoke French because he was the teacher at the elementary school — the darkened “hotel” we had come upon — asked if I could teach them a song.

“Est-ce que vous connaissez,” I asked, “les Rolling Stones?”

The question drew as blank a blank as I would have expected 10 minutes before if I had thought to ask, “Pardon me, my new-found Berber friends, but do you happen to be acquainted with Stax-Volt product, most especially that classic Memphis tune ‘Hold On, I’m Coming’ by that hot buttered soul man, Mr. Isaac Hayes?” No, these particular tribesmen had never heard of les Rolling Stones.

Nevertheless, I tried, to teach them “Paint It Black,” which seemed to resonate with the song I had just heard — Nyaa-nyaa­nyaa-nycia-nyaa-nyaa-nyaa nyaa- nyaa-nyaa-nyaa-nyaa-nyaa-aah . . .

The Berbers stared at me like ­the Germans had been staring at them.

“I see a red door and I want to paint it bla-ack … “

Pre-Saharean zilch.

“A very German sentiment,” observed one of the German men. “In Germany zey vont to paint everyzing black.”

The Berbers just couldn’t get behind the Rolling Stones. As we sat there across that oddly shaped culture gap, at some points yawning abysmally and at others overlapping, the door opened and a slight young Berber man swaggered in. Suddenly the 12 began to clap and cheer and stamp their feet and laugh hear­tily.

My first thought was that this was their sarcastic greeting to a friend who had been out in the oasis making it with Aisha the Coleman lamp fuel-seller’s daughter.

Instead, the newcomer threw off his burnoose, cocked a hand on his hip, and, as an enormous flute appeared from under one bur­noose and drums appeared from under others, began to sing in a piercing reedy tenor with the 12 booming in with a choral response every other verse.

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The applause had been the pre-­Saharean rhythm section’s wel­come to their lead singer, who had begun to wail not merely immediately but, seemingly, retro­actively. This resonance with the Stones’ stage act and those with the music that followed were so concordant that I saw there was no point in teaching them “Paint It Black,” that they could already paint it any color they wanted. Too much to ask!

Retroactively he had us on our feet, Jews and Germans dancing with Arabs, and I would have pinched myself but I knew I wouldn’t feel anything. I can’t describe the double-time shimmy-­shake circle-dance he did as he sang because I was trying to do it too hard myself while simultaneously trying unsuccessfully to drink wine faster than I was sweating it out. How long this went on I cannot tell you. The end­ing of each song save the last was the beginning of another; the dance never stopped until it was done. Then the Berbers went home and the Germans and us went to sleep in the hotel’s bedroom

That’s right, its bedroom.

The bedroom.

I awoke in terror at some ghastly hour of the morning, flashing forward to trips I hadn’t taken yet. The bedroom was filled with psychomorphic squid ink, and as I held onto the floor I felt like the Desert Nasties were snuffling up to me like grim shades of the beneficent forest creatures who snuffled up to cop a visual on new­born Bambi in the movie of the same name. “Here on the edge of Forget It where the tech­nosphere’s penetration into the biosphere is at least energetic,” they said in unvoiced tones of pre-­Saharean menace, “there is no­thing to interfere with your recep­tion of our emanations. You para­noid twerp, the life-cycle of this plant will expunge Man before he manages the opposite. If you think your kind’s puny dereliction of mysteries of their own inven­tion has weakened the vital powers of the Zone, tell us what you think of these little green apples!”

And the floor began to fall away at the speed of darkness and me with it and I said to myself oh boy, don’t I get one telephone call to a party of my choice? And I struggled to fall fast enough to be able to hang in close enough to the floor to climb onto it and walk toward where I remembered the door should be and step —

Outside and close it on the Nasties. Whew. But now the cold gust off the desert was blowing on me naked and hung over and the air was cacophonous with dog­barks and donkeybrays and I decided I was going to go back in­side and go to sleep, anti-matter Bambi-snufflers or no.

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I went back inside and lay down. “Back for more, with your hand-wringing fantasies?” asked the Desert Nasties.

“Aw, go fuck a duck,” I said, and went to sleep.

Summer will come again to those who are hot for it, I dreamt. I have informed myself of my rites. 

We awoke in daylight, dressed, and went outside. We could see for the first time that the town was built on a steep hill. As we stood there a single line of women dressed in black appeared around a corner and began to file down the zigzag of switchbacks.

“Qu’est-ce que c’est que ca?” I asked the boy.

“Une femme a mouru pendant le nuit,” he said.

We watched the procession pause at a doorway as the woman’s shrouded body was brought out. They resumed their descent, carrying her to a rocky knoll just outside the town. There they lay her down and piled rocks on her and keened over her and consigned her to the desert.

I decided that the Nasties who had visited me earlier that morn­ing were ill-tempered outriders of the perambulatory vortical presence that had sucked the woman’s juice out of her. I don’t know that the Berbers call that mortifying infundibulum but we Hebrews call it Moloch Ha­movess, the closest English trans­lation of which is, Midnight Rambler — as in, ev’rybody got-ta go.

Soon a film crew arrived, complete with Arabs in tinted aviator glasses, bell-bottom trousers, and faded denim jackets. They interviewed an old man and his donkey. What was it that the Nasties had been saying about the penetration of the technosphere? The musiciens folkloriques of the night before trickled into the morning-after parking lot. We looked at each other like we had all balled together, which essentially, we had. Too much to ask, but not a moment too soon.

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***

Shortly after our return to Babble-on, I discovered that while we were gone Rolling Stones Records had released a disc called “Brian Jones presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka.” Well what do you know. Seems Jones and his Nagra recorder had been escorted to Joulouka Tatoof by Brion Gysin in 1968, but it was only now that the Stones had their own label that they could get the master he made released — too late for Brian, who was found floating face-down in his swimming pool in mid-1969. The album included a text by Gysin:

“Pan, Bou Jeloud, the Father of Skins, dances through eight moonlit nights in his hill village, Joujouka, to the wailing of his hundred Master Musicians. Down in the towns, far away by the seaside, you can hear the wild whimper of his oboe-like raitas; a faint breath of panic borne on the wind. Below the rough palisade of giant blue cactus surrounding the village on its hilltop, the music flows in streams to nourish and fructify the terraced fields below … All the villagers dressed in best white, swirl in great circles and coils around one wild-man in skins. Bou Jeloud leaps high in the air on the music, races after the women again and again, lashing at him fiercely with his flails … He is mad. Sowing panic. Lashing at anyone; striking real terror into the crowd. Women scatter like white marabout birds all aflutter and settle on a little hillock for safety … They throw back their heads to the moon and scream with throats open to the gullet … Pipes crack in your head. Ears popped away at barrier sound and you deaf. Or dead! Swirling around in cold moonlight, surrounded by wild men or ghosts. Bou Jeloud is on you, butting you, beating you, taking you, leaving you. Gone! The great wind drops out of your head and you hear the heavenly music again. You feel sorry and loving and tender to that poor animal whimpering, grizzling, laughing, and sobbing there beside you like somebody out of ether.

“Who is that? That is you.

” … Up there, in Joujouka, you sleep all day — if the flies let you. Breakfast is goat-cheese and honey on gold bread from the out door oven. Musicians loll about sipping mint tea, their kif pipes and flutes. They never work in their lives so they lie about easy. The last priests of Pan cop a tithe on the crops in the lush valley below. Blue Kif smoke drops in veils from Joujouka at nightfall … ”

I could hardly be surprised at the kinship of the music on this record to the music we had danced to — such reserves of surprise as I still had were exhausted that night. The charts were different, shall we say, but the bomp was syncopated in the same hypnagogic way.

The album stiffed, of course. Music that people stoned on gelignite kif have danced to for eight nights a year for 4000 years could hardly be expected to engage the attention of rock critics, rack jobbers, and prog/rock play­listers.

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***

I was out at the farm in Walled Lake, Michigan, where Creem, America’s Only Rock and Roll Magazine, is put together, marshaling my faculties for a series of journalistic encounters with the Rolling Stones tour. Dave Marsh, the noted Teenage Dwarf, who edits Creem, flew into a rage at my eagerness. “It was Brian! The Stones are nothing without Brian. You’re going off to see a band with a hole in it!,” and he dragged me off to Ann Arbor to see a screening of “The TAMI Show.” Topping the bill of that kinescope of a 1964 telecast were the Stones complete with Brian. All I could see was a blond kid with a winning smile and losing bags under his eyes, strumming a guitar.

“Well?” pressed Marsh, dwarfishly.

“My gazoogo was not flonged, if that’s what you mean,” I said.

***

I guess I expected that the music of the Rolling Stones live and in person would sweep me off my feet. Instead it planted me more firmly on them. It was an ultrasonic brain enema, kilo-hertzing loose the scud of 50 per cent jive and 50 per cent bullshit and making me kiss it bye bye. It was was menschische music and I could not value it more highly.

But the audience response disappointed me to where I was flying to Detroit on my own nickel in the hope that I would be able to see the Stones perform before a live audience. I don’t mean that the audiences I saw didn’t hoot and holler and do a little light trucking in situ. I mean that in New Orleans the night before the Mobile date we went to Crazy Shirley’s on Bourbon Street and they were snake-dancing to Papa Celestin’s Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, but there was no snake dancing at any Stones concert. I mean, I watched Jagger try again and again to get an audience to sing along on the refrain to “Sweet Virginia,” the one that goes, “Come on, come on down, you got it in ya/ Uh-huh/ Got to scrape that shit right off your shoes,” before giving up late in the tour, and that I’ve seen solo accordionists at bas mitzvahs get more people to sing along. I mean it wasn’t long before Jagger stopped asking the audience to “kiss the person next to you” and that I’ve seen people do weirder things to each other on the Simon Sez-so of Borscht Belt tummlers.

I didn’t expect each audience to become a de Broglie wave of ecstasy — hmm, well, okay, maybe I did expect each audience to become a de Broglie wave of ecstasy. Why shouldn’t I have? “You gotta move,” the Stones had sung on their last album, and for this tour they had composed music to move by, music too powerful to capture on a piece of vinyl, which is why a lot of album reviewers do not consider “Exile on Main Street” their fave rave.

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My first analysis was that the audiences’ stolidity could be accounted for mostly by the fact that the tour management’s attempt to democratize the ticketing procedure — $6.50 top, computer-assigned seats, etc. — had created the first rock audiences chosen under the McGovern reform rules, i.e. what do you expect — 90 per cent of us have never been to one of these things before. (And upon all of us in discreet votaries of rock and stroll, O Orpheus, the curse of the Underground Gourmet: May you stand on line forever hungering to sup at the table you sold maps to.) The audiences were for the most part too stunned at being in the presence of the Rolling Stones to react — it was, after all, like seeing a resurrection right before your eyes, in that everything the Stones stand for is dead and gone except, wonder of wonders, them­selves. In meaner moments I chalked it up simply to the endemic callowness and inbred lethargy of the generation that dogged the footsteps of mine, slogging along zonked on Sopors. Kids today etc. etc. etc.

Which led me back to the liner notes of the Joujouka album and a reconsideration of whether it was possible that there was something lacking in the Stones’ music that sapped its power to actualize the rhetorical imperative “You gotta move” so that people would sim­ply have to move.

“I don’t know if I possess the stamina to endure the incredible, constant strain of the festival,” wrote Brian Jones. “Such psychic weaklings has Western civilization made of so many of us.”

When I first considered the Joujouka album, I assumed out of hand that Jones’s flirtation with the music of the Moorish highlands was nothing more than late ’60s pop-star dilettantism, that it was nothing more than late rites practitioners wore fur vests and lolled about sipping mint tea and copping tithes. But having seen this tour and re-read that liner note, I began to wonder whether Brian hadn’t been searching the African hills for the musical root of incredible, con­stant strain, looking to incorporate that root, collected first-hand, into the Stones’ music along with other African musical roots that had been transshipped from Gambia to Virginia to the Missis­sippi delta country to Kansas City and Chicago, arriving as “de blues,” and thence by post to Richmond, England, none the better for wear. Was “Joujouka” recorded as a sample of a transhistorical eight-day full-tilt­ boogying rhythm track for the rest of the band to cop licks from like they had from old Chuck Berry sides? Did he as rhythm guitarist and multi-instrumentalist intend to build a set of chops into the band’s music that would have the same effect on audiences as the raitas had on the Joujoukans, i.e., “striking real terror into the crowd,” the Lupercalian panic we read about in “Julius Caesar”? That would expose those who were not got to move to themselves as psychic weaklings, made so by Western civilization? That would turn every Rolling Stones performance into a rite?

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We won’t know whether the Teenage Dwarf was right for the wrong reason or wrong for the right reason because Brian Jones is no longer with us, such a psychic weakling had Western civilization made of him. The question is far from moot, however: The Master Musicians of Joujouka are still there, as are the Master Musicians of the Rolling Stones. On the last two American tours there was no rhythm guitarist “replacing” Brian Jones — Mick Taylor plays second lead, augmenting the im­pact of de blues on audiences; at times he seems to play a blues track, as much a part of the Stones’ music as the bass track or the lead vocal track. I am beginning to think that it is arguable that the entire body of de blues, from Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” as recorded 50 years ago in a San Antonio hotel room to the  Stones’ version as performed July 26 at the Garden, is a music of, by, and for psychic weaklings — wound-down entropic insect-winter music.

I know that a bunch of kids in a desert hill town made sounds that put my rear in gear and somehow activated in me the vestigial ulte­rior consciousness that some of us have more of and some of us have ess of, and that within hours I had arm-wrestled the minions of the actual Midnight Rambler to a draw. I doubt many people were forced to have that kind of experi­ence in the aftermath of the con­certs on this tour, though, that Gambler rambles throughout this land as he does in no other, and baby, it’s no rock ‘n’ roll show, and how much you w11nt to bet he’s beefed up his security since Wallace got shot?