Soundtrack to Watergate Vol. 2: Pirates, Angels, Dinosaurs, Gas Masks — and Ziggy Again

If Donald Trump gets impeached he’ll leave office to strains of excess and decadence — think of the Jonas Brothers copping to “dancing on top of cars and stumbling out of bars” in “Sucker,” Ariana Grande cavorting amid waterfalls of champagne in “7 Rings,” and Lil Nas X’s genre whiplashing as he makes off with the loot in “Old Town Road,” to name just a very few.

The only time an impeachment forced a U.S. commander in chief from office was after the Watergate scandal, which can be dated roughly from the Watergate burglary in June 1972 until Richard Nixon resigned his office, a little more than two years later.

The ads in our second installment of “Soundtrack to Watergate” are all full-pagers — and mostly right-hand pages at that, because advertisers pay a premium to snag eyeballs on the side of a spread that readers see for a few extra nanoseconds as they flip through a periodical. Back in 1972, the Watergate scandal was simply a police blotter report that Republicans were dismissing as a “third-rate burglary,” even though the perps had ties directly to the White House. A number of the ads here feature a logo with the stars of the American flag replaced by the number 18, signifying the voting age, which had recently been reduced from 21, along with the exhortation “Use the Power — VOTE.”

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Nixon, a buttoned-down Quaker who was the antithesis of the counterculture that most of the albums trumpeted, would win in a landslide in November, which relieved his innate paranoia for a few months until the drip-by-drip revelations of his administration’s SOP corruption, self-dealing, and obstruction of justice became a deluge that even his staunchest supporters could no longer explain away.

We have to admit there’s a lot of music below that, almost half a century on, we had never heard before, even though the record companies back in the day thought they were worth an expensive ad buy. So we’ve plunged down a number of streaming-service rabbit holes to bring ourselves up to speed on the flea-market vinyl below.

Much of the archive scanning work here was done while listening to the Latin-infused rock of Macondo, who, according to various record-collecting sites, were an East L.A. group discovered by Sergio Mendes in the early ’70s. Any album with a T-Rex on the cover deserves a listen, and we were not disappointed by Albert Hernandez’s fire-breathing guitar licks and Fred Ramirez’s rollercoaster organ riffs, especially on “Cayuco.”

Jefferson Airplane recorded their seventh studio album using the time-honored tradition of avoiding personality clashes after years of creative intensity by recording a number of the tracks in separate sessions and then getting the band back together in the final mix. Perhaps the pirate in the ad was drooling over the cigars printed on the album sleeve.

Looking Glass gave the world “Brandy” — “a fine girl” who served whiskey and wine and whose eyes “could steal a sailor from the sea.” Not, however, the one seaman she really wanted, because, “Lord, he was an honest man / and Brandy does her best to understand” when he —most probably in a pillow-talk whisper — informs her, “my life, my love and my lady is the sea / It is, yes it is.” $4.49 for the 8-Track at Sam Goody.

Despite the innocent-looking cherub hawking their new album, Black Oak Arkansas was upfront about delivering “more raunchy rock from the good ol’ country boys.” With songs of nightriders in trucks and on horseback, you might get the impression that these southern boys were into raising some serious hell.

Jack Nitzsche worked with everyone from Phil Spector to Neil Young to the Stones. He also did the soundtrack to the film Performance, which featured Mick Jagger and James Fox as, respectively, a rocker and a gangster who eventually meet on a higher plane. Perhaps writing the choral arrangement for “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” prepared Nitzsche for his collaboration with another breed of “long-haired friends,” when he recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra in an ancient London church with the sonorous name “St. Giles Cripplegate.”

Tina Turner leaps across the ad for Feel Good, and with the exception of a cover of Lennon and McCartney’s “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window,” she also wrote all of the songs for her and then husband Ike’s 17th (!) studio album.

The Hollies had a top-ten hit with “Long Cool Woman,” which pulled their album Distant Light to No. 21 on Billboard magazine’s charts. For fans of the Hipgnosis design studio, the gatefold album cover — featuring Boschlike grotesqueries in the depths of a bucolic pond — made the $3.77 tab go down easier.

According to Billboard, covering the 1972 release of Phoenix, “Grand Funk have by now attained an almost permanent place in rock’s hierarchy. They have legions of devoted, ready followers at every performance and lining up to buy their every album.” However, as the website notes, Lester Bangs, reviewing the album in Rolling Stone, was having none of it: “It’s not that there’s anything wrong with mediocrity or cliché — could you or I have written ‘Sugar, Sugar’? — but when mediocrity loses all its flair, all its panache, becomes this bland and this pompous at the same time . . . it’s time for some Chuck Berry.”

Herbie Mann’s flute (and David “Fathead” Newman’s sax) cover much musical terrain here, beginning with the traditional spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and concluding with a rock standard for the ages, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The ad’s illustration reinforces aspirations both high and low.

Take your pick that fall of 1972: Roberta Flack and Quincy Jones in September, The Fifth Dimension hitting the stage near Thanksgiving, with Bowie, Elton, America (of “A Horse With No Name” fame), and other chart toppers in between. Top ticket price was $8.50 for Engelbert Humperdinck (born Arnold George Dorsey), who once told the Hollywood Reporter, “I can hit notes a bank could not cash.”

According to the ad copy, Bonnie Raitt was a balladeering belter who’d been described as “earthy and innocent, winsome and whiskey-headed.” When asked for her own opinion, Raitt told the ad agency that her “batting average for the summer is something over .250.” Considering that this propulsive collection of rocking blues filigreed with New Orleans brass accents landed on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, we’d say she was swinging an even hotter bat back then.

Tim Buckley (1947–1975), whose music ranged from jazz to all manner of rock into funk, poses with a gas mask in the full-page ad for Greetings from L.A. A postcard of the City of Angels blanketed in smog on the album cover gives an idea of the down and dirty tunes on the vinyl.

Prog rock was ascendant in the early 70s, and it doesn’t get much more proggy than Curved Air’s synthesizer solos accompanying the Renaissance-festival-like vocals of lead singer Sonja Kristina on Phatasmagoria’s “Marie Antoinette.” The ad copy beneath the undulating logo reads “The one group that might be too good for America.” Indeed, these folky Brits hit No. 20 in the UK, but Phantasmagoria didn’t chart in the states.

Spokane, Washington, native Danny O’Keefe, on the other hand, hit it big with his single “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues,” which pulled his LP, O’Keefe, up to No. 87 on the album charts. The single has long since been etched into the pop pantheon, having been covered by artists from Waylon Jennings to Mel Torme to the King himself, Elvis Presley. The world-weariness of one particular verse has resonated with different singers; the original, “Ya know my heart keeps tellin’ me / ‘You’re not a kid at thirty-three’ / Ya play around, ya lose your wife / Ya play too long, you lose your life,’ “ gains a decade in Charlie Rich’s telling, the country maestro figuring he’s finally grown up at age 43.

If you had dreams of stardom back in ’72 you could’ve done worse than to head over to the former Fillmore East on Second Avenue and audition for . . . well, since they were seeking not just your standard-issue actors, jugglers, and fire-eaters but also “Dancing Bears,” “Aging Astronauts,” and “Animal Tamers and Big Namers,” we’re just sorry we weren’t around to see what kind of show they were putting together.

If hard rock was your jam, then Ramatam fit the bill. The band featured some established heavyweights, such as drummer Mitch Mitchell, late of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and former Iron Butterfly guitarist Mike Pinera. The quintet also featured a rarity for that time — a hard-rocking female guitarist. April Lawton (1948–2006) was a Long Island native who some hailed as the female Hendrix, but although Ramatam’s second album sported the enticing, semi-eponymous title In April Came the Dawning of the Red Suns, the band never caught the whirlwind.

If it was sun you were seeking, you could at least get it on vinyl in a two-record set capturing the “Mar y Sol” festival, held earlier that year in Puerto Rico. The eclectic gang had all been there, ranging from B.B. King, the Allman Brothers, Dr. John, and J. Geils to the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

And speaking of the prog gods, ELP was also promoting their own album at the time, Trilogy, which featured, among other virtuosic instrumentals, the trio’s take on an American classic, Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown.” The album hit No. 5 on the Billboard charts, though Voice music critic Robert Christgau bluntly disagreed: “The pomposities of Tarkus and the monstrosities of the Moussorgsky homage clinch it — these guys are as stupid as their most pretentious fans. Really, anybody who buys a record that divides a . . . composition called ‘The Endless Enigma’ into two discrete parts deserves it. C-”

And if you didn’t get enough of the J. Geils Band on the “Sea and Sun” discs, you could buy their live album Full House, which featured a winking Queen to let you know the hand was actually only a three-of-a-kind. More important, the title implied that they could sell out any venue they played.

Geils and crew were indeed bringing their boisterous rock to ever larger audiences, but they still didn’t have the drawing power of Alice Cooper, who was headlining a show at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City. The concert was a big deal — Cooper flaunted his sexuality in a solo ad as the big day drew near — but the venue’s greatest claim to fame came on April 18, 1946, when the home team, the Jersey City Giants, a farm club of the New York Giants across the river, hosted the Montreal Royals. The Royals trounced the Giants 14 to 1, but anyone who was there was undoubtedly impressed with the debut of the Brooklyn Dodger’s farm team’s second baseman, Jackie Robinson, who had four hits in five trips to the plate, including a three-run homer.

Another megastar coming to town was less abrasive than Alice Cooper: John Denver was promoting his album (and single) Rocky Mountain High. Carnegie Hall had probably never felt vaster.

Then again, in the same week, that storied music venue would also host Ziggy Stardust. And he’d come all the way from Mars.


Miss Tess and the Talkbacks

Nashville meets Brooklyn on the country chic The Love I Have For You, Tess’s recently released second album on rootsy label Signature Sounds: Here, the Brooklyn-based singer presents a collection of six covers and one original that pays homage to the totemic men who shaped the genre, claiming their contributions for the distaff branch of the Americana family tree but still leaving room for matriarchal figure Bonnie Raitt’s “Give It Up or Let Me Go.”

Wed., Dec. 11, 7 p.m., 2013


A Sentimental Celebration of a Legendary West Hollywood Club in Troubadours

All hail the Troubadour, the landmark West Hollywood nightclub that galvanized the late-’60s/early-’70s singer-songwriter scene, launching Carole King, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson, and Elton John (as well as comedians like Steve Martin and Cheech & Chong). As seen at Sundance last week, Morgan Neville’s pop-doc celebration features all of said boldfaced names and more waxing broadly about their early days at “the Troub,” with the obligatory vintage-concert footage and Ken Burns–style zooming and panning over scrapbook finds. The cinematic occasion is the club’s 50th anniversary, marked by a 2007 series of King and Taylor reunion concerts, slickly packaged together to wash over viewers like a sentimental, VH1-worthy pleasantry. The film is entertaining but hardly penetrating, and there’s something uncool about shaking the opening credits awake with the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams” before ditching rock ’n’ roll sensationalism altogether. Not that we need to hear any more about David Crosby’s snorting habits, and Taylor was probably still a mellow, boring guy even as a hophead. But why isn’t Doug Weston, the Troubadour’s late owner and curatorial mastermind—dismissed here as a greedy, crazy huckster by those who owe their careers to him—the star of the show?


The Resurrection and the Light

As all poetry aspires to the condition of hiphop lyrics, all American musicians aspire to the condition of Ray Charles. That ability of his to speak the nation’s vernacular truths as if he’d invented them. Echoing Whitman more than any other of our Tiresian crooners—so that when Ray Charles sings of America he’s singing of himself, no matter what the RNC thought, then or now. God bless my Black American ass muckafuthas, how about that? Sangin’ like you’d expect an African American blind man with a pistol and a lion’s heart of gold to sing, sangin’ about all that good warm light holed up in the darkness.

See, only in Black America could a blind man seem less handicapped and more agile in spirit than his sighted brothers. Blindness, in black and in blue, has been good to American music—Blind Tom, the Blind Willies Johnson and McTell, Art Tatum, Brother Ray, Stevie. Making a body wonder if Ellison’s Invisible cat wasn’t pursuing a vision in his hole but trying to understand the blindness of his countrymen—their inability to see nothing but black when faced with the sight of a negro in broad daylight. Brother Ray avoided the common negro malady of seeing yourself as the others saw you—as a thing not really there and all too present all too real at the same time. A figment of their fascination. The eyed and the unseen element in the room. The black world of Ray Charles was different from yours and mine. Certainly a world far less of a spectacle and therefore less prey to the interminable negro anxiety of being seen as a racial spectacle, of Being While Black. But I digress.

About Brother Ray’s swansong album, Genius Loves Company, know that an album of duets with Ray Charles must be a moment of self-revelation for the other singers involved. The weight of their souls being thrown into question by his mere shadow in the room. Because even knocking on death’s door, Ray remains Ray, as you must remain whoever you are. Ray remaining Ray in spite of losing the Pepsi challenge and becoming a product of the product, a subspecies of branded and canned Americana in the bargain, but hey, we’re all slaves to commerce one way or another and we all got to sell something for somebody. So these duets beg we ask, “In going head-to-head-toe-to-toe with Brother Ray, who are you, Norah Jones, Diana Krall, Johnny Mathis, and Gladys Knight? Who are you, Elton John, Michael McDonald, Natalie Cole, and Bonnie Raitt?” (B.B. King and Van Morrison excepted. Them we been knowing.) Some of their answers will surprise you.

Surprise you even though now is perhaps also the time to properly lament the death of the American popular song, the death of rhythm and blues, the rise and fall of soul, the disappearance of conscious lyrics. Since the singalong campfire classics of this generation are hiphop lyrics, no singer other than Martina Topley-Bird in my reckoning has been able to interpret them as if they were classic examples of the songwriter’s art without risking self-parody. It’s possible that Prince, Sade, or Bob Marley is the last great popular songwriter in the American tradition (yes, transplanted extensions count too), a writer with a body of work in English the whole world loves to sing along with. But it’s certain that today there are more remarkable singers than unforgettable songs.

Brother Ray was of course one of our most sublime interpreters of such songs, of their music and lyrics alike, and in this he showed the way for legions of cats Black, pink, and British, for how much one can modernize, vernacularize, and funkatize songs and not come off mad corny. Brother Ray was more like Miles and Trane in that regard than Sinatra, who à la Louis and Billie could make any song seem noteworthy as long as he was singing it. But Ray had the jazz gene, the jazz genie too, that urge to pull stuff out of a song’s crevices stuff the builder barely knew was there. So that when Ray and Willie Nelson take on Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year,” you realize how spectacularly Ray could make a moment out of lyrics that were just a stepping stone to the big chorus bangout for every other singer in the world. Likewise on “Fever,” because while Natalie Cole is playing her Sapphire-coquette role as cast, Ray is out and out moving the center of the thing from “Fever all through the night” to “Fever isn’t such a new thing, fever started long ago.” Meaning that from that moment on the song is not about hot It girls and unscratchable rashes and stuff, but about Ray’s blood ties to boogie history. (For the record, let’s recognize that these duets were done live in Ray’s studio and not hotmailed in, with a band featuring Billy Preston and the human-touched orchestrations of Phil Ramone and Concord’s John Burk.) When Willie Nelson sings of being 17 and 35 and good years for blue-blooded girls of independent means, you envision Willie in his own Elvis movie, hellion rockabilly gatecrashing and all. But when Ray sings of being 21 and her perfumed hair coming undone, the thing becomes literature, you’ve arrived on the stage of a memory theater more epic for being so personal, one all the strings, harps, and oboes in the world couldn’t overwhelm, squashed down like a black hole. At the same time Ray’s voice could effortlessly turn a romantic lyric into a cry for his people. Genius Loves Company contains so many moments where you hear him render Civil Rights Movement pride, wrath, and hurt, they can’t help but seem calculated, self-conscious and affected and still no less effective. He and B.B. on “Sinner’s Prayer” is almost an overdose of How I Got Over-ism, but I ain’t mad.

Part of Ray’s power lay in how cunningly he could slip Black pathos into Tin Pan Alley sentiment, a routine that hasn’t gotten old, since we’re not out of the woods yet per George Clinton’s declaration that he who is truly free is free from the need to be free per James Brown’s money won’t change you but time will still take you out, bling be damned. You also get to witness Brother Ray’s grace in collaboration on Genius Loves Company. He lets Elton John and Michael McDonald sing themselves silly on “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” and “Hey Girl,” saving his gusto for the word “hardest” on the John tune and not even bothering to come alive until he pimpishly drops a spoken “Come here” on the fade of “Hey Girl.” With his women guests he of course becomes the paternal sidearm, Big Daddy on the husky, melodic prowl but leaving a girl plenty of breathing room. The Gladys Knight, Diana Krall, Bonnie Raitt, and Norah Jones songs wouldn’t sound wrong on their own recent albums, though Jones shows there’s more Dinah Washington in her bones than we ever knew. (That’s the power of the Ray, Yo. Let you stand next to his fire. All kinds of Dinah might start breaking out on you too.)

What you’re not ready for is Ray Charles and Johnny Mathis. Everybody knows there are only two versions of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Judy’s and Patti’s. Up until now that is, because Johnny and Ray serve a whole other blend of yearning. Neither lost innocence nor the Metropolitan Opera were ever priorities in their worlds. Those in need of subtext get to imagine all kinds of monkeys and loves that dare not speak or be spoken of, all kinds of Harlem shooting galleries and Hollyweirded closets, all kinds of needs and thangs and thangs and needs best kept out of sight because no way they can be kept out of mind, being so dug in under the flesh, the popped skin, where Babylon gets surveillance webcast eyes poked out and only the wings of song can be heard lightly tripping the air via these two deep-thrusting golden-throated songbird brothers of yore, coming together for the first time to form their own kind of Black Millennium centaur, the billygoat’s gruff of androgyne. Yeah yeah yeah, that staple of nigra harmonizing, the abject sublime, one more time Mr. Jafa and one more again and peace be upon you Brother Ray and Brother Rick while we’re at it and get well quick Brother Ronald they’re still holding that date for us at NJPAC, yeah, no matter what a drag, flat on your back and damn near the last real soul man left standing.


Ska, Jam, Rock, and Reggae Stars Try to Drop Pressure

With “reggae does Dylan” on the horizon, True Love gives roots veteran Toots Hibbert the Sinatra Duets treatment. Toots is deserving, and the impulse not entirely misguided (see Bonnie Raitt and Willie Nelson). Still, we’re saddled with abortive pairings, such as Ryan Adams’s latest lifeless attempt to cotton to a new genre without examining his own self. And yes, it was inevitable that Gwen Stefani would come a-knockin’ (probably in special platinum dread weave ), but pairing old coot with young titty or giving a colored artist the “Hendrix treatment” should mostly be resisted when trying to preserve a legacy.

Other than Bootsy’s great, quickening “Funky Kingston” assisted by the Roots, remakes here—including “Sweet and Dandy” (with Trey Anastasio) and “Pressure Drop” (Clapton couldn’t stay away)—don’t improve on classics. Such worthy collaborators as Marcia Griffiths, Bunny Wailer, and Keith Richards sketch the glory True Love could have been. Remix, keep Keef as the token outsider, and dig deeper to a place we can all feel irie.


Sandman Coming

We’re a figment of their imagination, a beautiful dream, it is true.” Thus, at an office party in Heaven, Lucifer sheds unforgivable light on God’s punch bowl. Light that becomes Randy Newman’s Faust, 1995’s fractured fairy tale, now Rhino’d with a bodacious bonus disc of demos, incl. shoulda-rans, brought to you by a chorus line of Ran’s angels, chilling ’round his grand piano. He “explains” the plot and undersings the principal roles: James Taylor, ultrasmoove G-d; Don Henley, ultradork Faust; Linda Ronstadt, ultrainnocent Margaret; and Bonnie Raitt, who brings Mr. (Ran’) D. to his knees. (Oh, but when he interrupts the Lord’s hymn to Himself, don’t the Devil’s li’l eyes get their glee on? Just like Seinfeld’s own accursed “Noooman!!”)

The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1 contains 18 units. Just a voice and that piano, which is unappeasable on “Lonely at the Top,” amputates the blues under Mankind’s appeal in “God’s Song,” and rings blue skies over the floodwaters of “Louisiana 1927” (as has often “happened down here,” where I live, the day after “the wind have changed”). Voice and piano can’t quite silkworm their way back into “Marie,” not without the original version’s orchestra. Which later planted sleeper cells in today’s children, via Unca Randy’s Monsters, Inc., etc. soundtracks. Thus bridging the gap between us Disneyfried boomers and all future candy forevers.